Insurance Woes for Katrina Homeowners

ByABC News via via logo

Feb. 20, 2007 — -- A year and a half after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, thousands of residents are still in the midst of a storm -- a legal storm.

All that's left of Jim and Jody Beckham's once $500,000 home is a concrete slab. They lost everything.

"We used to sit on the balcony and watch the fireworks," Jody Beckham said.

Loyal State Farm policyholders for 35 years, the Beckhams haven't received a cent from their "all risk" policy, which, it turns out, excludes flood damage.

State Farm denied their claim, concluding that the damage was from water and not related to Hurricane Katrina's 140-mph winds -- a fact the Beckhams and their attorneys say they were not told by the adjustor who examined their house.

"I never once heard him say a word about water. It was all, 'Wind destroyed this. Wind did that,'" Jody Beckham said.

The couple are now suing State Farm.

Paul and Julie Leonard, whose home suffered $100,000 in damage, have also sought help in court. The judge in their first trial ruled their Nationwide policy did not cover storm surge damage caused by the hurricane. They are appealing, but so far they've received only $1,200.

Still, the insurance industry maintains that for the most part Katrina claims have been settled amicably.

The major insurance companies contacted by ABC News declined to be interviewed.

Bob Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute, said the insurance industry had paid out billions in Katrina damages.

"The insurance agency responded admirably to the unprecedented disaster that was Hurricane Katrina," Hartwig told "Good Morning America" anchor Robin Roberts. "Through that disaster, insurers paid 1.74 million claims, valued at $41 billion."

Despite that, critics point out the insurance industry made record profits in 2005: $49 billion, in fact, and growing to $60 billion last year.

"I understand [homeowners' confusion], but insurers have earned profits in other states, in other types of insurance," Hartwig said. "None of the profits in 2005, for example, were earned in the state of Mississippi. They were earned on auto insurance in Ohio or workers' compensation coverage in Oregon."

The record profits and the reports of denied claims have some in Congress up in arms.

The home of Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., was among those destroyed, and his insurance claim was also denied. Taylor wants the federal government to have more control over an industry he says has gone out of its way to deny claims.

"If you're going to tell a federal judge he can't read his policy, if you're going to tell a U.S. senator, a graduate of University of Mississippi law school that they can't read their policy, what kind of chance does an average Joe have?" Taylor said.

Congress will hold hearings on the issue next week.

But Hartwig maintains that the insurance companies did nothing wrong.

"Insurers are an industry that has responded compassionately to the individuals who are affected by those storms," he said. "And insurance is the best, most efficient means for recovery from natural disasters. That has been demonstrated time and time again."

Roberts insisted that might sound hollow to homeowners.

"Well, the proof is, is if you travel throughout the region as you have and as I have, you can see rebuilding of homes and businesses, hundreds of thousands of them," Hartwig said.

With a court date later this year, the Beckhams hope they will prevail and join in the rebuilding.

"I have never sued anyone in my life, but I feel like it's the only way to get what's owed me," Beckham said.

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