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Aulton Vann Jr.: A new perspective on disaster

Pascagoula, Miss., insurance agent Aulton Vann Jr.  figures he has an advantage over most others whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Katrina, because he doesn't have to worry about tearing down his obliterated house
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Aulton Vann Jr., 57, Pascagoula, Miss. Married, owner of an insured beachfront home worth approximately $500,000.

When it comes to navigating the reefs of insurance payouts, Aulton Vann Jr. should have an edge over many Katrina victims: He is  an insurance agent with nearly 30 years’ experience helping people get back on their feet after one sort of disaster or another.

Strange as it seems, he also believes he has an advantage over most others whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Katrina, because a tornado apparently dipped down as the storm hit the Pascagoula waterfront, virtually erasing the home he had shared with his wife, Mary Linda, since 1979 and where they raised their three children.

“I'm not hurtin' ,” he said a week after the  hurricane hit, standing on the steps that formerly led to his front door. “I mean I've lost everything, but these people out here have all this water in their houses, they've got to tear all this out, they've got to fight this mold, they got to rebuild their structures. Me? I bring a bulldozer in, I level it out and I start again.”

Vann finally decided he couldn’t wait any longer and this week had a friend begin grading the lot, even though he’s still waiting for the adjuster who will decide how much money he’ll receive on the “hurricane” portion of his homeowner’s policy.

‘Tired of seeing my wife cry’
“I’m tired of seeing my wife cry every time she comes out,” he said.

In the meantime, he sheepishly acknowledged that while the adjuster handling his flood insurance claim “did me decent … he also said I was underinsured.”

“It’s just like if you ever go to a carpenter’s house, there’s all these projects that need doing,” he added with a laugh.

A former football coach whose can-do attitude was no doubt popular on the sidelines, Vann also is working with insurers to replace his offices, which were destroyed by Katrina’s storm surge even though they are close to a mile from the waterfront in an area considered a “no-flood zone” by FEMA. Once the adjuster agrees that the building is a total loss, “We’re going to go back with a metal building that's supposed to withstand 125 mph winds,” he said. “So maybe within three to six months we’ll have everything hooked up and the phone system and computers in and all that. The home is going to take a bit longer.”

Vann said the first step will be to pull a trailer onto his beach front lot that he and his wife can live in until they can build a new home.

Katrina delivers ‘wake-up call’
Vann undoubtedly would have been much further along in the process if he hadn’t devoted himself to helping his clients sort through sundry insurance issues in the weeks after the storm hit and selling new policies to those who are heeding the “wake-up call” delivered by Katrina.

After business hours, he also has been busy helping friends and neighbors clear the wreckage of their homes so that they can begin to turn to the monumental task of rebuilding.

“People are looking to the future now, saying , ‘This is what I’ve got to do and now I’ve got to do it,’” he said Wednesday by phone.

Vann says he’s gone through a similar healing process since he first walked down to the waterfront after the storm and saw what had happened to his home.

“I'm over it,” he said. “It's happened, I've shed the tears, now it's time to rebuild. It's the only thing we can do.”