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Answers to many questions posed by the damage of Katrina

WASHINGTON—As the world focuses on the life-and-death issues caused by Hurricane Katrina, many of those not directly affected by the tragedy have some basic questions about how the storm will touch their lives.

Here's a sampling:

Q: Will bus fares rise as a result of higher gasoline prices caused by Hurricane Katrina?

A: It depends on the individual contract that each bus system has with its gasoline supplier, said Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association. If a system negotiated a fixed price for gas when it was cheaper, it is still paying the per-gallon price stipulated in that contract. If a system is negotiating a new gasoline contract, which can run up to 3 years, it's more likely to pay higher prices that can be passed on to riders.

Q: Will my property insurance premiums increase because of Katrina?

A: "In states that were not affected, this should not have an impact," said Jeff Brewer, spokesman for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. In areas where the hurricane struck, damage assessments are ongoing. If insurers determine that their risk assessment models must be adjusted for a higher probability of future storms, premium increases also could result.

Q: Are my federal income taxes likely to go up?

A: It's unclear. Only Congress can raise taxes and it's never an easy proposition. A more likely scenario is that the current tax cuts that the Bush administration wants to make permanent will not be approved. The slow federal response to Katrina has increased concern that America's readiness for national emergencies has been compromised by the recent round of tax cuts and spending for the war in Iraq. Future tax cuts will be a much tougher sell, and a federal deficit boosted by Katrina spending might force tax increases.

Q: Can I send a letter or package to the Gulf Coast? Are the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and FedEx making deliveries?

A: The U.S Postal Service has suspended delivery of standard mail, periodicals and Express Mail to certain areas affected by the storm. For specific information, go to www.usps.com and click on the "Hurricane Katrina Service Updates." United Parcel Service and FedEx also have suspended service in storm-ravaged areas. For more information, go their Web sites at www.ups.com and www.fedex.com/us.

Q: Is there likely to be a shortage of shrimp and oysters and, if so, will the price increase?

A: Because 90 percent of shrimp consumed by Americans comes from foreign sources, there likely will be no spike in shrimp prices, said Stacey Felzenberg, spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute in McLean, Va. But the sweeter shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico, which many prefer, may be harder to find and could command a premium price in the near future, she said. Louisiana produces 40 percent of all oysters eaten in the United States. About two-thirds of the state's oyster harvest and oyster beds sustained "extraordinary damage," Felzenberg said. So higher oyster prices and shortages are likely.

Q: Is there likely to be a shortage of lumber, drywall and other building supplies, and will the price go up?

A: In the immediate future, repairing structures damaged by Hurricane Katrina will increase demand for roofing and wood panels, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Demand for building materials, however, such as concrete, will likely decline initially as projects are canceled or delayed during the recovery period. Disrupted shipping lines and damaged roads could slow shipments of building supplies to parts of the country. And lumber and roofing prices will likely spike, the NAHB predicts. For a detailed explanation on the impact of Katrina on building costs, go to the NAHB Web site at www.nahb.org/news.

Q: How can unsuspecting buyers avoid purchasing flood-damaged cars from used-car lots?

A: The National Automobile Dealers Association says there's no sure way to test a vehicle for flood damage, but it offers 10 tips to avoid buying a water-damaged vehicle.

1. Check the vehicle title history; flood damage may be listed.

2. Check the interior and engine compartment for evidence of water and grit from submersion.

3. Check for recently shampooed carpet.

4. Check under the floorboard carpet for water residue or stain marks from evaporated water not related to air-conditioning pan leaks.

5. Look for rust inside the car and under carpeting. Inspect all upholstery and door panels for evidence of fading.

6. Check under the dashboard for dried mud and residue, and note any evidence of mold or a musty odor in the upholstery, carpet or trunk.

7. Check for rust on screws in the console or other areas where water normally wouldn't reach unless the car was submerged.

8. Check for mud or grit in alternator crevices, power steering pumps and relays, behind wiring harnesses, around the small recesses of starter motors.

9. Get a detailed inspection of the electrical wiring system for rusted components, water residue or suspicious corrosion.

Inspect the undercarriage and other components for rust and flaking metal not normally associated with late-model vehicles.

Q: When will Katrina-related gasoline price increases begin to disappear?

A: Help is on the way, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Even though crude oil reached $65 a barrel on Friday, petroleum is trading at pre-Katrina prices, said spokesman Craig Stevens. It's just a matter of time before gasoline prices at the pump begin to moderate, he said. The average price of a gallon of regular gas was $3.07 as of Sept. 5, up 46 cents from the previous week. Diesel fuel prices increased 31 cents to $2.90. Gulf of Mexico oil production was reduced by 1.5 million barrels a day after Katrina, which caused four refineries to close for the next several months. But storm-shuttered gasoline supplies have stabilized, thanks in part to loans from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserves to oil refineries.

Q: How can I avoid getting ripped off if I make a Hurricane Katrina donation online?

A: The FBI is warning people about making online donations to bogus Katrina Web sites that solicit personal information that can be used for identity theft. Officials urge people not to respond to unsolicited e-mails, or spam, seeking contributions. The Better Business Bureau is telling people to give only to charities or aid organizations that they are familiar with, such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. And go directly to their Web sites instead of following a link, cautions the FBI. If you suspect a fraudulent Internet charity, file a complaint with the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.IC3.gov.

Q: Who will pay medical costs for poor children and adults displaced by the storm?

A: Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program will provide care under new emergency guidelines announced Friday that allow needy hurricane evacuees to receive care without providing full documentation of their eligibility. Host states will be asked to make a reasonable attempt to verify eligibility, but mandatory production of financial records and documents will be waived. The same relaxed guidelines will apply to evacuees seeking: child care; mental health services; substance-abuse treatment; food stamps; housing; foster care; school lunches; unemployment compensation and job training. States will submit the extra cost of these services to the federal government, which will reimburse them.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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