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Hurricane victims piling up credit card debt

Jerry and Deborah Alciatore fled New Orleans with nothing but a couple of overnight bags, an ice chest and their credit cards. The bags emptied quickly, but two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, the balance on the credit cards is mounting fast.
New Orleans refugees, Shannon Miller, left, and Darin O'Connor. The couple ran up $200 in charges for gasoline. They put another $300 on the card for four nights in a Dallas hotel. And they're using the card for frequent trips to Wal-Mart and Target, to buy everything from an iron to clothes they wore when they lined up for interviews at the job fair. David Pellerin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jerry and Deborah Alciatore fled New Orleans with nothing but a couple of overnight bags, an ice chest and their credit cards. The bags emptied quickly, but two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, the balance on the credit cards is mounting fast.

Their first week on the road, they charged $1,600 in food and hotel bills in Houston, about $400 worth of clothing, mostly from discount stores, and a couple hundred more on gasoline.

Jerry Alciatore splurged $1,200 on a laptop to keep in touch with employees of his small architectural firm, pushing the credit card bill to about $5,000. They’ll soon have to make another mortgage payment on their house in Metarie, which was damaged but not destroyed by three feet of floodwater.

“I’m worried. We have about a one-month gap where my income will be cut off and so will my wife’s,” he said. “I have to see if my business is still going to be OK. We’re going to be out of our house for maybe three months, but I have a mortgage payment every month, and now we have to rent an apartment.”

The Alciatores are quick to say they are lucky compared to others who suffered so much more. They consider themselves middle class, maybe upper middle class.

Still, financial experts say the couple is right to be worried. The Alciatores and other Katrina victims who thought they were financially secure must keep their debt in check while facing huge relocation costs and uncertainty about their income. It’s not easy.

“People in a crisis are not thinking clearly. Their emotions take over, and that’s not a good place to be when it comes to your finances,” said Deb Outlaw, a CPA and financial planner in Dallas. “Sometimes they feel like they have to get back to what they had before the disaster, but they need to be patient.”

Like much else surrounding Katrina, the financial aftermath is a story of haves and have-nots.

Helen Salazar-Realini, a financial planner in Miami, said most of those who left the Gulf Coast early will be fine. Insurance, after a deductible that can run several thousand dollars, will cover their homes and cars and living expenses while they are uprooted.

Renters will be in far worse shape, she said. They may have lacked insurance to cover their belongings and have difficulty recovering security deposits.

Salazar-Realini said people in such a dilemma should seek consumer credit counseling offered by familiar agencies such as United Way.

“They will expect that you’ll cut up all your credit cards. They’ll put you on a budget,” she said. Most helpfully, those agencies can negotiate a repayment plan with creditors that ideally should waive additional interest, the planner said.

Critics say credit card issuers are making it harder for people to dig out of debt by increasing penalty rates for late payments. Nearly half raise interest rates for customers who are late paying other bills.

Credit card companies now say they will waive penalties for Katrina victims who are unable to pay on time. Credit card giant MBNA Corp. will give hurricane victims a two-month payment holiday and a break from cash advance and late fees.

Jim Donahue, an MBNA spokesman, acknowledged that some people will take on more debt than they can repay. He said it was too early to tell what the credit card company would do then.

Rhonda Bentz, a spokeswoman for Visa USA Inc., said most banks that issue Visa cards are expected to offer more lenient terms to hurricane victims.

“There are some who are going to be staying in hotels, putting that on their credit cards,” she said. “The displacement is going to be much longer and cover many more people” than other recent hurricanes or the Sept. 11 terror attacks. “It’s hard to tell what the impact might be.”

Katrina has renewed the debate over changes to the bankruptcy code set to take effect next month.

The Consumer Federation of America and other groups are lobbying Congress to delay the new bankruptcy law, which they opposed all along. A delay would help Katrina victims file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection under the old law, making it easier for them to wipe out most kinds of debt rather than set up a 3- or 5-year repayment plan.

“They turned the bankruptcy courts into collection agencies for credit card companies. That means there’s less protection for victims of Katrina,” said Elizabeth Warren, a bankruptcy law professor at Harvard and a critic of the new law.

The American Bankers Association is opposed to delaying the new law. Floyd Stoner, the group’s executive director for congressional relations, said creditors and bankruptcy judges will treat hurricane victims sympathetically.

“If you lost all your assets, you’re not going to have to repay part of your debt ... that will be even more true in a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina,” Stoner said.

At a job fair near Dallas, Shannon Miller and her fiance, Darin O’Connor, said they charged $200 for gasoline, $300 for four nights in a Dallas hotel, and are still using credit cards for frequent trips to Wal-Mart and Target to buy everything from an iron to the clothes they wore when they lined up for interviews at the job fair.

“We have to get jobs to support ourselves,” Miller said. “We can’t sit around for six months like it’s vacation.”

Kimberly Rogers, 26, and Julian Ford, 23, who lost their rental apartment in New Orleans, said they were spending cautiously to avoid financial trouble.

They have received money, food, clothes and shelter from friends and relatives. They have avoided using credit cars, with help from Rogers’ family.

“They don’t want us to spend any money right now, and I don’t want to create any debt,” Ford said. He paid off the balance on two credit cards just before Katrina and is confident about finding a job and paying off the $400 on the remaining card.

The Alciatores and about 40 other Katrina victims are staying in a suites hotel in Plano, a Dallas suburb. The Red Cross is paying for up to 28 days of lodging. Many have applied for $2,000 in aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I’m not going to line up for food stamps,” Alciatore said, “But when you’re cut off from your income and your bank account, you look around and say: ’I’m not too proud to take a couple grand to help get back on my feet.”’