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Vicky Dean, a server at Waffle House, poses for a portrait at Waffle House in Gulfport, Miss., on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. Dean has had to take the bus to work after her car was damaged. (Hannah Ruhoff/The Sun Herald via AP)

AP

The evening before Hurricane Zeta made landfall, Vicki Dean and her husband, Kenny, were curious to see if the distant storm was already churning up Biloxi’s Back Bay.

Like they did many evenings when Vicki wasn’t waitressing at a Gulfport Waffle House, they took a drive to look at the water and watch the sun set.

But they never made it.

Driving on Forrest Avenue just south of the bay, Dean saw cones on the right side of the road, alerting drivers to construction hazards during an ongoing paving project.

Suddenly, she felt something scrape the bottom of her 2004 Buick LeSabre. When she got out of the car, she saw she had driven over a raised manhole cover. When she tried to keep driving, she heard “bad sounds:” a piece of plastic had come loose from the bottom of her car and was scraping against the asphalt. She yanked it off.

She drove to a friend’s house. He told her the car frame was broken. If she kept driving it, the motor could fall out. So she drove home, and started trying to figure out how she would live without a car for the first time in her adult life.

For about six years before that evening in 2020, a Texas-based company called Oscar Renda Contracting Inc. been working on the roads in East Biloxi as part of a $350 million project to repair infrastructure after Hurricane Katrina.

In the process, it had torn up some 50 miles of roads. For years, East Biloxi was dusty in dry weather and muddy after the rain.

Residents of East Biloxi — where one in three households are impoverished, a much higher rate than the city as a whole — attended city council meetings and protested outside Oscar Renda’s Biloxi office. They described car damage, respiratory problems from the dust, and lost income because no one wanted to risk the roads to patronize neighborhood businesses.

By October 2020, the project finally was almost finished.

But when Vicki Dean took that drive down Forrest Avenue, final paving had been delayed “as the city waited on testing and repairs of the underground infrastructure installed by Oscar Renda Contracting,” according to Biloxi’s November 2020 newsletter.

On Tuesday, the City of Biloxi announced that Oscar Renda had filed a lawsuit against the City in July, seeking $79 million and alleging that delays and cost overruns were due, among other factors, to flawed engineering documents and plans provided by the city.

The city argues that Oscar Renda’s claim is based on “false logic and inaccurate analysis” and ignores parts of the contract to make incorrect arguments.

Dean was certain that the accident was not her fault. She had been paying attention to the cones set up on the right side of the road, but there were none around the raised manhole.

Nevertheless, it had upended her life, forcing her to scramble for rides to work and to cancel doctor’s appointments because she had no way to get to them.

She faced a question hundreds of East Biloxians had grappled with over the years of the infrastructure project: Would anyone pay for the damage?

HOW DOES THE CLAIMS PROCESS WORK?

Dean’s first call shortly after Zeta was to City Hall. She wasn’t sure who was responsible for the manhole cover. The city directed her to its third-party administrator, Associated Adjusters Inc.

The city’s contract with Oscar Renda, signed in May 2014, says that the contractor must carry liability insurance and indemnify the city against “loss, damage, and liabilities” during the project. But there are no other details in the contract as to how the company would handle citizens’ damage claims.

City spokesman Vincent Creel said the process was the typical one the city uses for all projects, though this one was much larger.

“The claims process is set forth in the contract, and it’s not unlike the claims process for all city projects,” he said. “It is the responsibility of the contractor.”

Creel said the city also documented damage claims through its own adjuster, Associated Adjusters, “so there would be a record.”

Then, Associated Adjusters sends that documentation to Oscar Renda. Creel said the company also has its own adjuster and insurance company, Liberty Mutual, to evaluate claims.

TRYING TO GET DOCUMENTS DURING COVID

Associated Adjusters was immediately responsive and helpful, Dean said.

“She told me they’re responsible for making me whole,” Dean said of the employee who helped her.

The next step would be to prepare documents showing how her car had been damaged.

Dean doesn’t own a computer or a printer, so she wrote out her narrative of what happened by hand.

She labeled another piece of lined paper with the heading “Additional Comments.” She explained why she wasn’t able to include an official damage estimate.

“I’m trying to get someone during COVID to come out and give me free estimate for a car that would cost more to fix than the car is worth says anyone I talk to,” she wrote. “My friend says y’all can sent some one out. Please do I’m at my whits end with this. Please help me become whole again!!”

She wasn’t sure how to attach the photos she had taken with her iPhone to an email, so she plotted out three separate bus trips to Walgreens to print them.

By late April, she’d gathered all the documents and images she could. Then she put everything in the mail, certified, to Casey Roalson, an administrative assistant.

The company’s office in Biloxi had already closed, so Dean mailed the package to Roalson’s apartment in Jackson. Roalson texted Dean to let her know it had arrived.

Then, Dean waited.

A LONG TRIP TO WORK

On a recent Wednesday, Dean left her house in central Biloxi at 12:29 p.m.

She wore her Waffle House uniform: black pants and a short-sleeved blue button-down under a black apron, with a Waffle House logo tie. Her curly gray hair was pulled back. In an apron pocket, she carried a plastic bag full of quarters and dollar bills — portions of last week’s tips that she’ll use to pay for this week’s bus and cab fare.

As she walked down Porter Avenue toward Beach Boulevard, she gestured toward the Food Giant a few blocks north. It was lucky they could walk to shop for groceries.

She stepped carefully up and down curbs, mentioning the rheumatoid arthritis in her knees and hips.

“I’m not a good bus person anyway because I can’t walk,” she said.

Sitting on the bench at the bus stop, under the shade, she watched the traffic and the people spending a hot and sunny day at the beach across the highway.

It reminded her of how she and her son, when he was little, would sit on the beach right there, by the lighthouse. They moved from Peoria, Illinois, 35 years ago because she wanted to raise him somewhere safe and quiet. From the beach, she would point at the Gulf Towers Condo building and say, “We’re going to live there someday.” And they did, with the money Dean made from waitressing.

On the bus, Dean paid $1.50 and settled into her favorite seat, looking out over the Mississippi Sound. After Edgewater Mall, she’d pay another $1.50 to continue the trip. She would arrive at work in Gulfport at about 1:30. Her 15-minute drive had become an hour-long bus commute.

During parts of the pandemic, ridership on Coast Transit Authority buses was limited to 10 people. If there were already 10 riders when the bus got to Dean’s stop, it would keep going.

Instead of taking the risk, Dean worked out a deal with a local driver: She’d pay him $30 a day to pick her up and drop her off at work, both ways. She paid with the money she’d made in tips during the day’s shift. After the holidays, when business was slow, she didn’t always have enough. He told her not to worry about it.

“When you get your settlement,” he’d say.

On June 2, about a month after Roalson had received the package, Dean sent her a text. She didn’t respond.

A month later, on July 8, Dean texted again.

“It’s been over 2 months since you received the package from me and you said once you talk to your project manager it wouldn’t be that long I’m still have to get transportation to and from work and I would really appreciate an update please.”

Roalson never responded.

OSCAR RENDA RESPONDS

In early August, the Sun Herald reached out to Roalson for comment on Dean’s claim. Roalson directed questions to Rachel Sackett, director of marketing and communications for Southland Holdings, Oscar Renda’s parent company.

After the Sun Herald emailed Sackett, she called Dean.

“This claim is still open and being evaluated due to the delay in receiving necessary documents from Mrs. Dean,” Sackett wrote in an email to the Sun Herald last week. “Today, I spoke with Mrs. Dean and learned of her challenges in submitting all needed documents, specifically a third-party repair estimate. We are actively working with Mrs. Dean on solutions to gathering the remaining information and resolving the claim.”

During their phone call, Dean said, Sackett told her that she was missing three damage estimates requested on the original claim form. Ordinarily, Dean recalls her saying, the company wouldn’t send someone else to get a repair estimate. But because “the media is involved,” they were making an exception.

In an email, Sackett denied saying that.

“No one from our organization, including myself, told or insinuated to Mrs. Dean that the media is the reason we are assisting with her claim,” she said.

Sackett did not directly answer a question about why no one had responded to Dean’s text messages earlier to tell her that her claim could not be evaluated without the damage estimates.

“The supporting documentation package was initially sent to Mrs. Dean in late October 2020, and we received her partially completed documentation in May of 2021,” she wrote. “With the six-month time-lapse between the initial report of the damage and receiving the partially completed package, it has taken longer than average to assess the claim.”

“As with many construction firms, we have procedures in place to ensure claims are evaluated and processed promptly,” she wrote in another email. “Whenever steps are not taken, paperwork is not filed, or a claim is not opened promptly, delays are inevitable.”

A LIFE UPENDED

Dean hopes that now, she’ll finally be able to get the car repaired or replaced.

During a bus ride to work in late July, Dean thought about how that run-in with the manhole cover had changed everything. Riding around Biloxi was the thing she and Kenny did for fun. As she drove, they’d turn up the music. Kenny, who used to be a DJ, loves Eric Clapton. They’d talk about the day while looking over the calm water of the Back Bay.

They hadn’t been able to do that for almost a year.

Money that might have gone to paying rent or buying milk and eggs had gone to pay for rides to work. Kenny, who has a seizure disorder, had missed doctor’s appointments. They owed $1,200 in rent.

As the bus meandered around Edgewater Mall, she thought about how scared she had been that losing her car would mean losing her job. But she had never once been late to work.

“I could have let it take me all the way down,” she said. “But I’m stronger than that.”