Carter: Insurance crisis hurting humanitarian efforts

Published 5:12 pm Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Former President Jimmy Carter said the insurance crisis along the Gulf Coast is wiping out much of the benefit that humanitarian organizations are trying to provide to victims of the devastating 2005 hurricane season.

“The federal government has got to take the leadership” in making homeowners insurance more affordable along the Gulf Coast, Carter said Monday while visiting the construction site of two new houses being built by Habitat for Humanity.

Carter spent much of the day in this St. Bernard Parish town about 14 miles southeast of downtown New Orleans — an area where nearly every house flooded substantially when levees failed along a shipping canal that runs from New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico.

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Wearing a hard hat, a red handkerchief around his neck and tool belt with a hammer dangling off his hip, Carter spent some time helping out on the construction site and also toured the area.

The homes are the 1,000th and 1,001st built by the organization in the region within the past 20 months. And the group plans to build about 2,600 more during the next few years.

The former Nobel Peace Prize winner, whose Atlanta-based Carter Center does humanitarian work and monitors elections worldwide, echoed the frustration of numerous residents in the area who’ve seen insurance rates skyrocket since the storm, whether their homes were damaged or not.

Carter said the typical interest-free, 30-year mortgage payment for the modest, raised, one-floor homes built by Habitat for Humanity run about $220 per month. Insurance on those same homes can sometimes run as high as $500 a month, Carter said, essentially tripling the cost of the home to those the house-building organization is trying to help.

Carter stopped short of blaming the insurance companies of gouging, as many angry homeowners have, but said low- or middle-income working families cannot be expected to afford current rates.

“I don’t want to criticize our free enterprise system,” Carter said. “The federal government needs to move in and give a fallback position.”

Expanding the federally subsidized flood insurance program to cover homeowners from extreme events like hurricanes could be an option, as long as coverage limits are kept in the low six-figure range, Carter said.

The homes of people with limited means “ought to be the main target of a federally supplemented insurance program and not just a $3.5 million house, which is some of those being built along the Gulf Coast,” Carter said.

Carter said other problems he noticed included a lack of activity in certain hard-hit neighborhoods, where blocks of abandoned, flood-damaged homes stand amid overgrown yards with no clear indication of whether they will be demolished or renovated.

“It’s pretty discouraging to me to see how few people are coming back and how few of the homes are being either demolished or otherwise,” Carter said. “We … need a clearer picture of the people who don’t ever intend to come back into their homes, to go ahead and make those homes available or the lots available for housing to be constructed. One of the impediments now to Habitat’s building is a lack of space on which to build new houses.”

In the New Orleans area, Habitat for Humanity usually builds homes about 3 1/2 feet above the ground, making them far less prone to flooding than many of the ranch-style, brick homes built on slabs in numerous area subdivisions in the past 50 years. Those neighborhoods, many built in drained swamp, tended to be the hardest hit when levees breached during Hurricane Katrina.

The lots where the two Habitat for Humanity homes were going up were in such a neighborhood, yet the former president said he was optimistic that the families moving into the new homes would not be surrounded by ruin indefinitely.

“I think the folks moving in here are very fortunate,” he said. “They’re not going to be surrounded by an abandoned housing area. They’re going to be surrounded by a housing area that’s going to be rejuvenated, although it might take four or five or six years. I think it’s going to be a very nice place to live.”