Carus CEO Andy Johnston said Wednesday his company has “work to do.”
For the first time since the Jan. 11 fire, Carus officials met with the public in an open meeting, inviting residents to step up to a microphone at La Salle-Peru High School’s Matthiessen Auditorium and ask questions of company officials.
La Salle residents who have attended City Council meetings since the fire have conducted two protests in the past month in front of the company’s headquarters, with the first rally calling for a public meeting with company officials.
Residents were critical Wednesday of how Carus has handled the aftermath of the fire, noting company officials didn’t stop at any of the affected neighborhoods to ask how residents are doing. Several residents shared the extent of their property damages and health concerns, and others asked what safety precautions are being taken in the event of another accident. Some residents held up signs with photos of the damage.
Carus officials apologized at various times during the meeting and admitted they were wrong in how they communicated with the public in the aftermath of the fire.
“We’re sorry it took so long,” Johnston said.
Still, residents had several questions and concerns left unanswered or unaddressed. Another public meeting is being planned in June and Johnston said company officials took notes and will digest what was shared.
About 150 to 200 people gathered in the auditorium, with a number of residents sharing their stories and asking questions as company officials responded, often times to commentary from people within the crowd.
Among those who spoke at a microphone, Lisa Dyas told officials the materials that fell on her property caused significant damage, citing how it ate a hole through a plastic chair and how she won’t be able to turn on her air conditioning unit because of the corrosion. Her 14-year-old son has been hospitalized for 15 days with pneumonia and doctors are evaluating if the fire aftermath could have led to it, she said.
Dena Hicks said she won’t let her children swim in their pool because of the contaminated water. The city told residents at its last meeting it would clean swimming pools for residents, but that the water would need to be tested before it is drained into the sewer system. She also said the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommended residents not allow their pets outside, and her pets have been sick lately.
Lindsay Bliss, vice president of human resources at Carus, responded that she empathizes with Hicks and would want answers too if that were her backyard. She said company officials need to hear the impact from residents and are looking at it as an opportunity to respond.
Don Gaddis said he has thousands of dollars worth of damage on his property, from the paint on his truck, to his boat, to his air conditioning, to gutters and several other items in his yard. He said insurance adjusters were willing to declare his wife’s car a total loss for $3,000 and give him $1,700 for his boat as a loss, but these items cost much more to buy.
“We hear (Wednesday) that Carus is rebuilding,” Gaddis said. “They aren’t rebuilding for me.”
In response to several residents who said their property damages have not been paid or assessed, and some questioning low values being offered for damages, Chryss Crockett, senior vice president and chief financial officer at Carus, said the company had a third party insurer. Those companies AIG and Allied World don’t have local agents to assess damage, so the Davies Group was contracted to the do the ground work.
“We have no say in how much they are offering,” Crockett said.
She said working with the two companies and figuring out which one was responsible for what also led to a two-month delay in the process. She also encouraged residents if they are getting quicker responses from their own homeowner’s insurance, that it may be more simple to work with them.
Giving public comment, Jim McPhedran, who serves as La Salle’s city attorney, said he was disappointed to hear Carus put the responsibility on its carriers. He said Carus is ultimately responsible and he said homeowners shouldn’t have to take the chance of increasing their insurance premiums by having to work with their own carrier to get damages repaired, because Carus’ response was too slow.
Additionally, during the meeting, Allen Gibbs, vice president of operations, said “yes,” he would promise the company will not store anything more in the Apollo warehouse at the end of Porter Avenue in La Salle.