Retired meteorologist testifies in Katrina dispute

Published 4:30 pm Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hurricane Katrina’s highest winds pounded the Mississippi Gulf Coast for several hours before a storm surge peaked and inundated thousands of homes, a meteorologist testified Wednesday in what could be a landmark insurance trial.

Retired Air Force meteorologist Rocco Calaci was a witness for Paul and Julie Leonard of Pascagoula in their lawsuit against Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.

The trial could be a barometer for hundreds of lawsuits filed against insurers after the monster storm.

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Calaci testified in U.S. District Court that Katrina blasted the plaintiffs’ hometown near the eastern edge of Mississippi’s coastline with hurricane-force winds for hours — from shortly before 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — on Aug. 29, 2005.

Katrina’s winds remained at hurricane-force levels for several hours after its storm surge began to recede, Calaci said.

“Looking at the hurricane as an entire event,” Calaci said, “the Pascagoula area was basically pounded.”

Calaci’s testimony is designed to help the Leonards prove that Katrina’s winds damaged their home before it was flooded by wind-driven water from the Mississippi Sound.

Nationwide, which denied the Leonards’ claim, says its homeowner’s policies cover damage from wind but not from storm surge because wind-driven water is considered flooding.

Nationwide spokesman Joe Case dismissed Calaci’s testimony as “nothing special.”

“I think what we got was a very general, weak explanation for what happened on Aug. 29,” he said. “We literally got a satellite view of what happened.”

The Columbus, Ohio-based insurer’s experts are expected to testify later in the trial that Katrina’s winds peaked about the same time as its storm surge.

Nationwide, which paid the Leonards $1,600 for the $130,000 worth of damage to their property, says storm surge was responsible for almost all the damage to the Leonards’ home.

But structural engineer Peter de la Mora, a witness for the Leonards, testified Wednesday that wind was responsible for much of the damage to the couple’s house and garage. The roof to the house has to be replaced due to damage from wind and wind-driven rain, he added.

A Nationwide attorney questioned de la Mora’s qualifications and credibility, noting that the Texas-based engineer has never testified in a case involving hurricane damage prior to this trial.

De la Mora, who has worked for Nationwide many times before the Leonards’ attorneys hired him, also has twice been reprimanded by the Texas Board of Professional Engineers for not following “generally accepted engineering practices.”

The trial, which is expected to last through the end of the week or early next week, resumes Thursday with more cross-examination of de la Mora. The Leonards’ attorneys are expected to call one more witness, a claims adjuster, before Nationwide starts presenting its case. Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, an attorney for the Leonards, said many other post-Katrina insurance cases will hinge on proving that wind damaged or destroyed homes before the structures were flooded by water from the Gulf of Mexico.

Scruggs’ law firm represents about 3,000 policyholders on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.