Storm victims denied aid

Published 12:21 am Sunday, July 23, 2006

With an annual income of $15,000, Judy Cox had a choice — pay to bury her husband or make the premium on her homeowner’s insurance policy.

She buried her husband.

Regina Gillaspy had to decide between buying her mother’s medication or homeowner’s insurance.

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She filled the prescriptions.

Disabled and bankrupt, Operation Desert Storm veteran George Fondren had to wait until his 60th birthday to qualify for military retirement pay so he could buy insurance. By then, it was too late.

Hurricane Katrina came.

Cox, Gillaspy, Fondren and an unknown number of other Mississippians not only were left homeless by the Aug. 29 storm but now don’t qualify for aid.

“You see people being helped around you, and you see contractors and casino building going on aggressively, and there you are in sight of that and nobody knows who you are,” said Fondren. “I just fell through the cracks.”

Laid off from her job as a telemarketer for a mail-order beauty supply company, Cox struggles to make ends meet in her apartment in Hattiesburg, where she moved after a tree slammed on to her Summit home.

She had no homeowner’s insurance and does not qualify for repair money.

The tree, she is sure, is hundreds of years old. It came right through her bedroom ceiling as she hid behind a mattress in the hallway. Now the small, two-bedroom, brick house is overrun by weeds, snakes and mold, deemed unlivable by the government.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave her $3,000, but two contractors have told her the repairs will cost $137,000.

As a Pike County resident, Cox is outside the coastal areas designated for disaster funds by the governor’s office. FEMA recently informed her it would no longer cover the rent for her apartment.

“I’m fully to blame as far as the house insurance. I just didn’t have the money for it,” she said. “My husband died. I had to bury him, and burying people is not cheap.”

Money is available for homeowners who don’t have insurance, but in Cox’s case, there’s a complication. When she ran into financial difficulties, her son, Claude, bought the foreclosed house to keep it from being seized. He lives in Hattiesburg where he attends school, and, technically, Cox owns nothing.

She contacted federal agencies, state lawmakers, U.S. senators and other members of Congress.

She got little response.

Gov. Barbour’s spokesman, Pete Smith, said Cox’s information is being reviewed, and the office plans to have someone call her.

Smith said Barbour is urging residents to apply for a second phase of funding, even if they don’t think they qualify, so the governor can evaluate the need.

“I can’t say that we can help her,” he said. “We will at least try to see what we can do.”

FEMA spokesman Eugene Brezany said the agency is looking into her case. It’s possible, however, some people just don’t qualify for the funds they need, he said.

Funding comes down to a philosophical quandary, as officials wrangle over how much responsibility homeowners should take for managing their own risk. Those without homeowner’s insurance are a special problem.

For the Mississippi Development Authority, which helped the governor’s office craft hurricane funding strategy, natural disasters are inevitable, and homeowners are naive not to expect them.

Those who had to choose food, medication or a burial over an insurance premium fall into a tragic category. “It’s heartbreaking, it really, really is,” said spokesman Scott Hamilton.

Hundreds of complaints poured in through a Web link on a state home help site, expressing angst, fear and desperation.

An Ocean Springs resident contemplated the absurdity of an insurance company paying for damage on the second floor but not the first floor. Another resident complained no one would write reasonable insurance for a double-wide mobile home in Hancock County.

A Pass Christian parent who lost everything worried about an epileptic son who has more than 100 seizures a day. “My own state is turning their back on us because we are poor,” the e-mail reads.

Fondren was among the voices.

Living on disability checks, the now 61-year-old Desert Storm veteran couldn’t afford homeowner’s insurance for his Gulfport home. He was eligible for military retirement pay, but not until he turned 60.

That day finally came in 2005.

“I saved everything I could to get insurance,” he said. “I decided that was my greatest vulnerability. That was the only asset I had.”

By the time he called, the insurance company said it was too late: A storm already was brewing.

“We do choose not to write new business where there is a potential disaster brewing,” said April Eaton-Robinson of Allstate.

Other insurance companies turned him down, too.

“From June 2005 to September 2005, there was not a time when the Gulf was clear of storms,” Fondren said.

So, Fondren watched as the storm came through and took a chunk of his roof, tearing up his second floor and flooding his first. He had a stroke when it hit.

FEMA declared his house unlivable and gave him rent money that has been used up. The $5,600 it gave him for repairs also was quickly used.

He asked FEMA for more help, but they said no. He tried and failed to get help from the city and the state. The U.S. Small Business Administration turned him down for a loan because he had once declared bankruptcy.

“It’s just like a deep, dark pit and you keep getting sucked down deeper and deeper and there’s no help,” he said.

It’s a pit Gillaspy, 37, says also claimed her.

She lives in Pascagoula with her 71-year-old mother. Gillaspy’s head and back were badly injured in an accident. Her mother has trouble walking.

They have a FEMA trailer, but it’s not handicap-accessible: There is no ramp, and neither is able to fill the gas tanks that keep the utilities going. The winter months were miserable. “We didn’t have hot water, we didn’t have heat, we had nothing,” Gillaspy said.

Their home, a block from the beach, had been in the family since 1939 when her grandfather built it.

With her mother suffering from high cholesterol, high blood pressure and breathing problems, they opted to buy her medication instead of homeowner’s insurance.

“We had to make a choice,” she says. “What else can we do but pray the storm wouldn’t come? But it did.”

The house was destroyed. FEMA gave them rental assistance and some money for their belongings but just $5,200 for home repair. They are waiting to see if they qualify for more funds.

“We’re on the phone with FEMA all the time, and we just can’t take it anymore,” she said.

They’ve been told they can keep the trailer only for 18 months. She fears she won’t last long, and neither will her mother.

Gillaspy thinks if they could just get a handicap-accessible trailer, if they could just get that trailer until they can get a house, they might be able to hold on.

“I mean, please,” she says. “Somebody, help us.”