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Still Waiting for Someone to Size Up Damage

In St. Bernard, La., where almost all of the homes were wiped out, a couple cling to the hope that the insurance adjuster will show up.

October 18, 2005|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

ST. BERNARD, La. — Wayne Savoy has heard that the insurance adjusters are on the way here in the marshlands of St. Bernard Parish, south and east of New Orleans. But, he said, it's hard to keep up hope.

"The more you look around, the more depressed you get, basically, is what it is," said Savoy, 40, a contractor and a lifelong resident of St. Bernard.

While the devastation in New Orleans continues to receive much attention in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, residents of the semi-rural areas even closer to the Gulf of Mexico are coping with the virtual obliteration of their hometowns: Here in St. Bernard, almost every one of the 26,700 homes was destroyed in Katrina's 23-foot storm surge.

The damage is so bad that most of the storm-tossed villages here, home to fishing boats and natural gas plants, remain ghost towns.

And 400 emergency workers, all of whom have lost their homes, are being housed on the Scotia Prince, an old ship that once ferried vacationers between Maine and Nova Scotia.

Even the sign that proclaimed "Fin de la Tierra" -- End of the Earth -- has been washed away at the end of the Delacroix Highway.

State insurance officials said recently that to speed up recovery they would divide St. Bernard and Plaquemines, the neighboring parish, into grids for insurance-adjusting purposes. In this way, entire neighborhoods could effectively be declared a total loss, easing a homeowner's path to receiving some sort of claims payment.

But Savoy and his wife, Joan, 41, a paramedic, said Monday that they had no idea when an insurance adjuster would come to their one-story house along the highway here. They have called their insurer repeatedly and registered, through friends, on the company's website but have received no response.

And, even if they did get a claims payment, they acknowledged, it was unlikely to be anywhere near the $60,000 they said they would need to rebuild the house as it was before. Like many homeowners here, they had insurance against hurricane-related wind damage, which would cover the cost of a roof repair, but flood insurance was prohibitively expensive, so the bulk of the house would not be covered.

The Savoys said they were determined to rebuild, one way or another.

"I refuse to give up on the idea of living here," Wayne Savoy said, gesturing toward a large pile of debris, including a ruined refrigerator, on his front lawn.

"It's still beautiful to me," he added, gesturing toward the sky. Indeed, this day was eerily, strikingly beautiful: warm sun, a faultless blue sky, followed by the stunning rise of a full, orange-tinted moon.

"I ain't gonna quit," he said, "until I'm comfortable again."

Joan Savoy agreed, but with a crucial qualification.

"Yes, I guess we'll just rebuild, one way or the other, and stay here," she said. "But, if there's one more big hurricane, then, well, I don't know."

Some of their neighbors seemed to agree, even if they weren't around Monday.

"Shall Return!" declared the red spray-painted graffiti on the front of a beige-brick home. A huge red smiling face was spray-painted on a round frosted-glass porch table, tilted on its side.

Congress and the Legislature will debate to what extent homeowners here should be encouraged to rebuild, and eventually the insurance adjusters should make it to whatever grid in which the Savoys' home lies.

The parish assessor, Marlene Vinsanau, said she would ask for a two-year tax amnesty for all businesses and residents, though it's unclear what would make up for the lost revenue. Vinsanau said she could not in good conscience ask anyone to pay taxes for parish services that almost certainly would not be delivered.

For now, the Savoys are staying in a recreational vehicle owned by friends. Having spent most of the last seven weeks at a Red Cross shelter in Florida, they say they are back to stay in Louisiana.

They took all their savings and bought a storage trailer and had it professionally painted. They filled it with $12,000 worth of tools, compressors and wet vacuums, and brought along their two poodles, Missy and Dixie, as well as two family heirloom hunting rifles.

"Southern Customs -- Interior and Exterior Renovations -- Aluminum Seamless Gutters and Patio Covers," the trailer proclaims, displaying their cellphone number.

"People are calling," Wayne Savoy said. "I'm open for business."

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