Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Red Cross = Red Tape

I keep getting stories from people who have problems with the Red Cross. Everyone sees the stories of the FEMA and Red Cross monies spent at strip clubs and designer malls. The criminals and reckless folks have figured out how to milk the system better than the honest people. Many people I speak with feel guilty for taking the money since they are in financial positions where they do not currently need it. I think this is the one time you should take it. Regardless of how much insurance you have, you are going to lose money on this situation. This is like an insurance claim, you may never need it again and this is what you pay the premiums for all your life. If you really feel guilty take the money and donate it to a charity of choice.

One friend of mine was blown away by the hospitality of a small resort community that runs a small hotel on the premises. They already reasonable rate of $50/night was reduced to $35/night once the news of Katrina spread and they realized that many of their visitors were evacuees. [Note 1: people who leave on their own prior to the storm are evacuees vs. refugees]. Imagine how great he felt when he learned that many of his work colleagues paid nothing for somewhat nicer digs in Houston. Again, punishing the honest.

Once he returned to his unflooded home, anger set in and he decided he wanted a piece of the government cheese. Plagued with visions of 8 hour lines waiting for Red Cross assistance, he thought he would outsmart the system and dial the 800 number. Unfortunately the 800 number has about the same hit rate as the average Baton Rouge phone number when being called from out of state. Occasionally, it would actually answer with a "this line is for evacuees only" and some gibberish about the phones being "overwhelmed". [Note 2: Katrina is not the first hurricane to hit the US. See hurricane Ivan 2004] I understand that Baton Rouge can't handle the call volume but FEMA is used to massive amounts of people calling after a disaster. The recording tells you to check the Red Cross website for additional assistance options. Instead of putting you back on hold, it puts you into a fast busy situation and you are toast. [Note 3: Some evacuees may be on a pay phone and not have access to the internet]

I wish the idiocy ended there. You can file for something called "disaster unemployment". If you file you will get a letter telling you to expect a pre-loaded debit card with the benefit money on it in just 21 days. The beauty of the letter is that it generally arrives the same day as the benefit card. This reminds me of the first Bush tax refund where you received a letter telling you that a check would be immanent (at the cost of the tax payers). You then need to call an 800 number to activate the card and establish a PIN and finally learn of the balance. You can also do the transaction via the web and get the details of the transactions that went into creating your amount. The beauty of the web is that the login doesn't work. This has been tried with IE, Firefox and others (no anti-MSFT bigots please) with pop-ups and cookies enabled and disabled. There is a JavaScript popup that states "I'm sorry, I don't recognize the information you entered". Of course this occurs after you have entered the card number, PIN and agreed to something or other. I have to sympathize with this dilemma, as we filed a FEMA claim (to be discussed in a future post) and it kept coming up with a "can not verify your identity" after entering pages of information. It turns out that it could not recognize "W Street Name" vs. "West Street Name". I wish the government would follow the standards that they themselves try to establish.

When the friend finally got through to the Red Cross, he was denied an benefits. If he had gotten through a week earlier, he would have gotten assistance on the evacuation and living expenses. Now the deal is "only if your pre-storm residence is currently uninhabitable". The moral of the story is to file early and often. When he griped about the lack of info on the website, he was told that if it was published people would call and lie about their situations. Sounds like the magic formulas for FICO scores. Not bad for being on hold for an hour and a half.

One other business associate who lost everything got the standard $2,000 up front. He applied for additional living expenses. He was denied. Why? Too much income? Too much insurance? No - he did not return the required form within the 14-day time limit. Turns out he never received the form due to mail delays. Once he debugged the problem he was told to write up an appeal letter and fax it back to FEMA. This person lives in Slidell. Try finding a working fax machine that has a good phone line. Now try to get through a number that has been given out to hundreds of thousands of disaster affected citizens. This really is a disaster.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Back to Normal?

I'm sure everyone has seen that people are starting to filter back into the city. Many of the schools opened up in Jefferson Parish on October 3rd. It seems that getting back is somewhat of a dilemma for people. Everyone wants to go back as soon as they can. The reality is that life is far from normal.

Stores- while there are places to buy food and gas, there is far from an abundance. All of the stores close early (6:00 or 7:00 pm). Most have supplies but may not have some of the extras. They will have Coke or Diet Coke but not Caffeine Free. They also tend to run out of the staples frequently. You can get the basics but you need to plan ahead. The Home Depots and Wal-Mart’s are open but your favorite local hardware store may or may not be.

Labor - The bigger problem is who will work in the stores. People are having a hard time getting in touch with their employees. Many have not returned. Consequently, when you go into your local diner, you may see an entire new crew you have never seen before. Popeye’s and McDonalds have increased their hourly wage (reportedly $9/hr) just to get people in. Burger King takes the cake. They are paying a $5,000 signing bonus payable after 12 completed months of work. 5 grand signing bonus for Burger King? And they say Louisiana doesn't value education.

There are many complaints of people using out of state workers instead of the local. I think this is one of those how you look at the glass. While it is true that there are shelters with people who are looking for work, there are also contractors looking for laborers that can not find any local ones. I spoke with one contractor who hirers contractors to work on air conditioners. Pre-Katrina he paid $16/hr. Now he can only find out of state (mostly Florida) contractors for $29/hr. He would gladly hirer local people if he could find them. I don't think that most people understand just how much work there will be for years to come. There will be enough labor jobs to go around.

Inflation - as with Hurricane Ivan, the price of plywood has skyrocketed. I had to go to Home Depot today and at one Baton Rouge location (Coursey Blvd), they had a huge fence surrounding stacks of plywood and two security guards. They had several other security guards in other areas as well. Sheetrock has also gone up significantly. At least one sheetrock plant in New Orleans was flooded. I'm not sure what the impact will be due to this but every house that had flooding will need some amount of sheetrock. Plywood had finally gotten reasonable before Katrina. Reasonable, but still higher than pre-Ivan. Gas jumped to $2.79 or higher once Rita hit.

Retail Sales - The reports are in on retail sales for September and it was a banner month. Or was it? After talking with many retailers, the consensus is that the hardware stores, food stores and a few other areas - gas, clothes, etc. did well. Non-essential items like music, movies and gifts did not do as well. There are many hurting retailers out there that the numbers are not reporting. Some have been quoted as saying the two weeks after Katrina were the worst in the last 25 years they have been in business.

Restaurants - Restaurants in Baton Rouge are also doing well. In Kenner/Metairie, the restaurants that are open are doing good business but the cost of their goods has gone up. Sysco was not open a week ago so many restaurants were paying retail for their meat. Consequently the consumers are passing the costs along. You can't get ice reliably either so beer and wine are doing well but mixed drinks are not.

I was contacted by someone who runs a blog that is coverying a lot of Rita. I'm providing the link to Rita in Cameron Parish. It has a lot of information for people who are looking for information about Cameron Parish.

Shameless friend plug - a friend of mine in Portland does some amazing high speed photography of water droplets. His site, Liquid Sculpture has recently been featured on a small blog site that has turned his site into an overnight success story. I remember being in his basement when he first started fooling around with this stuff a few years ago. Who would think a digital camera, a flash and some water would lead to this.