Business Of Disaster: Insurance Firms Profited $400 Million After Sandy

Sue Kenneally, center, wipes tears as she and other victims of Superstorm Sandy gather during a demonstration across from the statehouse in Trenton, N.J., in October, 2015. More than three years after the 2012 storm, many residents are still not back in their homes.

Sue Kenneally, center, wipes tears as she and other victims of Superstorm Sandy gather during a demonstration across from the statehouse in Trenton, N.J., in October, 2015. More than three years after the 2012 storm, many residents are still not back in their homes. Mel Evans/AP hide caption

toggle caption Mel Evans/AP

On a cold rainy day last fall, dozens of people gathered in a plaza across the street from New Jersey’s state Capitol. They held press conferences and slept overnight in lawn chairs.

This story was produced in partnership with the PBS series Frontline.

It’s part one of a two-part story airing on Tuesday’s All Things Considered and Wednesday’s Morning Edition.

Watch the full investigation, “Business of Disaster,” Tuesday night at 10 p.m. / 9 p.m. Central on your local PBS station, or watch online.

NPR and Frontline

Everyone had come to make the same point: They’d made it through Superstorm Sandy, which hit the shores of New Jersey and New York in October, 2012. But three years later, many hadn’t made it home.

Doug Quinn, a 51-year-old from Toms River, N.J., had been in the plaza for two days.

“I should be at home in my house and part of my community and instead I’m here doing this,” said Quinn. “I thought it’ll be all right; my insurance will take care of what needs to be taken care of and I’ll be back home in three to four months. It’s [been] three years and I’m still not anywhere close. I look back now and think how naive I was.”

Doug Quinn has been living in a rented home in Toms River, N.J., while he still pays his mortgage and flood insurance on his house that was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.

Doug Quinn has been living in a rented home in Toms River, N.J., while he still pays his mortgage and flood insurance on his house that was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy. Bryan Thomas for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Bryan Thomas for NPR

Superstorm Sandy wasn’t a disaster for everyone, though. For some, it was big money.

NPR and the PBS series Frontline have spent the past year investigating the business of disaster and have uncovered a complex system in which private companies profit and homeowners and clients suffer.

At the center of that system is the National Flood Insurance Program, which is designed to help in disasters like Sandy. Almost everyone with a mortgage who lives near water pays for flood insurance through the program, so more than three years later most residents expected to be home.

But in many cases that didn’t happen. While thousands of homeowners like Quinn said they have not received the recovery help they need, our investigation found that their private insurance companies that administer the government’s flood program made as much as an estimated $240 million to $406 million in profit annually over the past four years.

We reached out to flood insurers — including some of the nation’s largest firms — that represent the majority of homeowners affected by the storm and all declined to comment on this story. Records show that nearly 80 firms participate in the government’s flood program.

Robert Hartwig, head of an industry group funded by the insurance companies, said insurance companies price their services to make a reasonable profit, like any business.

“It is always going to be the case — in the event of a major catastrophic loss where hundreds of thousands of people will have seen damage or complete destruction of their property — in some instances that they will believe they are due more than in fact the claim was ultimately adjusted for,” he said.

“This is a fee-for-service operation,” said Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute. “The federal government determines what the appropriate payment is.”

Still, FEMA’s top flood official acknowledged that the program needs fixing and told NPR and Frontline that he is pursuing reforms. Government auditors asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency seven years ago to impose stricter oversight of the program, including insurers’ profit margins. But little has been done.

“What I can tell you is that I am focused on those policyholders and insuring that they get the resources and the payouts they are entitled to,” said Roy Wright, who runs FEMA’s flood program. He acknowledged that the program does not provide enough oversight of the firms. “Because when I go back and look, while we were providing oversight, it was not enough.”

And after our reporting, FEMA announced Monday it will include more transparency in and oversight of the National Flood Insurance Program. That includes overhauling its contracts with private insurance companies and assigning a person to help policyholders through an appeals process.

‘The Game Was Stacked Against Us’

To understand the challenges homeowners are facing, we set out for Toms River, N.J., where Quinn’s house used to be.

The night of the storm, a wall of water surged across his lot, swamping Quinn’s foundation and most of his first floor. State officials said his house had to come down, so he had it razed.

Top: Doug Quinn's home in 2011. Left: Damaged materials from inside Quinn's home in January, 2013. Right: Water flooded Quinn's street the day after Superstorm Sandy.

Top: Doug Quinn’s home in 2011. Left: Damaged materials from inside Quinn’s home in January, 2013. Right: Water flooded Quinn’s street the day after Superstorm Sandy. Courtesy of Doug Quinn hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Doug Quinn

Quinn had the maximum flood insurance policy — $250,000 in coverage.

But when the letter arrived from the insurance company, he didn’t get $250,000. He got $90,000.

That wasn’t enough to rebuild his home. Now, more than three years later, he is still paying the mortgage on this nonexistent home while he rents the house he lives in now.

“I knew right off the bat that something was wrong,” he says. “I did not realize that the game was stacked against us and there really was no way to win.”

If it was a game, he wasn’t the only player. Thousands of homeowners across New York and New Jersey were underpaid. Some got just a fraction of their policies.

FEMA runs the government flood program. But it doesn’t write the policies or manage the claims. It pays private insurance companies fees to do that work.

When homeowners buy flood insurance, they pay a fee that doesn’t actually stay with the insurance company. It goes into a pot of money to the flood program. After a disaster, the insurance companies that participate in the flood program decide how much a homeowner will receive. They then pay homeowners using the pot from the program.

When that money runs out, as it has during big disasters in recent years, taxpayers pay the rest.

In theory, homeowners shouldn’t be shortchanged because the insurance companies are only acting as a middleman between FEMA and the homeowners making claims, essentially contracting with the government to evaluate damage and assess compensation.

And yet in the months and years after Superstorm Sandy, hundreds of homeowners in New York and New Jersey filed lawsuits claiming that not only were they shortchanged by their flood insurance, but they were cheated.

Life in the neighborhood continues on around the empty lot where Doug Quinn's house used to stand in Toms River, N.J.

Life in the neighborhood continues on around the empty lot where Doug Quinn’s house used to stand in Toms River, N.J. Bryan Thomas for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Bryan Thomas for NPR

‘A Noticeable Sea Change’ In Insurer Attitudes

David Charles, an insurance adjuster that represents homeowners, says he had always loved his job and never had any problems with insurance companies. But after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts in 2005 — and became the most costly storm in U.S. history — things changed.

“There was so much money spent on Katrina, the insurance companies paid out so much that there was a noticeable sea change in the attitude of the insurance companies going forward,” he says. “My files started coming back to me. Take this out, take that out. Every single change they made reduced the cost.”

Charles says he was seeing cutbacks, no matter which insurance company he was working for. He says other adjusters shared similar stories.

Like many other homeowners, Ann Marie Cianci — standing near her abandoned house on Staten Island, N.Y. — has been unable to move back home. After paying flood insurance for 32 years, she only received $60,000 out of her $250,000 policy.

Like many other homeowners, Ann Marie Cianci — standing near her abandoned house on Staten Island, N.Y. — has been unable to move back home. After paying flood insurance for 32 years, she only received $60,000 out of her $250,000 policy. Bryan Thomas for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Bryan Thomas for NPR

The insurance industry says homeowners have not been systematically underpaid.

“There is no incentive for a private insurer at all to underpay these claims,” says Hartwig, the insurance institute’s president. “The vast majority of those individuals who in fact did have coverage are happy with their insurance companies and they’re happy with the way the process unfolded for them.”

Dozens of homeowners we interviewed described something different. So did several others who worked closely with the insurance companies after the storm. Jeff Coolidge reviewed adjusters’ files for multiple insurance companies after Superstorm Sandy. He says he quit his job in part because he was so bothered by what he was doing.

The insurance firms he worked for used phrases like “pre-existing,” “earth movement” or “ground settlement” to reject homeowners’ claims of flood damage. “They use ‘settlement’ a lot. ‘Sorry your house looks like it shifted to the left a little bit, but I think it was like that when you bought it,’ ” Coolidge said.

They told him to pay homeowners less than what they asked to be paid to rebuild, he said. He says that put pressure on him to get the independent adjusters in the field in line to back up these conclusions, or else their flat fee was at stake.

“I’ve told an adjuster that based on our guidelines that I need you to remove these items,” he says. “I send it back for revision. He doesn’t agree with that. He’ll resubmit it. I’ll reject it back.”

If the adjuster wanted to pay the homeowner more, Coolidge would reject the adjuster’s assessment until he got the answer his employer wanted, and in some cases he switched adjusters or threatened to do so. “‘I’m going to take half your pay and give it to him,” he recalls telling several adjusters.

Looking back, Coolidge says he regrets that behavior but at the time, he didn’t feel he had a choice. “I feel bad every day for participating in that. It is what it is. [The insurance companies] had the upper hand. You either do it or they’ll remove you.”

An American flag flies in front of a home damaged by Superstorm Sandy on Nov. 1, 2012, in Toms River, N.J.

An American flag flies in front of a home damaged by Superstorm Sandy on Nov. 1, 2012, in Toms River, N.J. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Running Deficits Since The Beginning

Part of the reason insurance companies could have been shorting homeowners through people like Coolidge may lie in the way the program was set up — and how much it is paying insurance companies.

Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program in the 1960s when large storms swept across the Midwest, wiping out entire towns.

“The idea of the original program was brilliant,” says Robert Hunter, who ran the flood program in the 1970s. “The program would become less and less expensive because people would be building safer and safer structures and … the program would become self-sufficient and carry its own weight and not lose money.”

Bob Hunter became the Federal Insurance Administrator in 1976. On the right is the Secretary of Housing for Urban Development, Carla Hills, and on the left is his wife, Carole.

Bob Hunter became the Federal Insurance Administrator in 1976. On the right is the Secretary of Housing for Urban Development, Carla Hills, and on the left is his wife, Carole. Screenshot courtesy of FRONTLINE (PBS) hide caption

toggle caption Screenshot courtesy of FRONTLINE (PBS)

But that has never happened. The program has run deficits from the beginning. In the 1980s it was $700 million in debt. In the 1990s, it was $1 billion in debt. And today, after Katrina and Sandy, the program is $23 billion in the red.

Hunter says that’s partly because the program doesn’t charge homeowners enough in premiums to adequately fund itself. But, he says, it’s also because FEMA pays the private insurance companies too much money. At least a third of the money that homeowners put into the program gets paid to them, he says.

Last year, government data shows, that came to more than $1 billion in fees.

Hunter says with so much money going to insurance companies, it’s that much harder to cover storm losses, or save up to help pay for the really big ones, like Katrina or Sandy.

“In the long run you’re going to lose money,” he says. “And you’re going to lose a lot of money, and that’s what happening.”

Now, when a big storm hits, taxpayers mostly pick up the tab, and the insurance companies get paid, regardless.

“It’s a sweetheart deal” for flood insurance firms, Hunter says. “[The companies] like it. They have no risk. It’s just doing what they normally do; they just tack it onto the homeowners policy and they make some money.”

Bob Hunter, in his home in Arlington, Va., says the National Flood Insurance Program doesn't charge homeowners enough in premiums to adequately fund itself.

Bob Hunter, in his home in Arlington, Va., says the National Flood Insurance Program doesn’t charge homeowners enough in premiums to adequately fund itself. Brandon Chew/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Brandon Chew/NPR

Exactly how much, however, could help explain why thousands of homeowners believe they were shorted.

There are a couple of theories for possible shortfalls.

For one, industry experts say insurance is a commercial business. It looks to lower costs and keep payments to homeowners in check. It’s just habit, they say — even if it’s not their money.

And then, after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA tried to crack down on overpayments to homeowners, when some companies charged unrelated damage coverage to the flood program instead of their own wind coverage.

But there was one more theory. The insurance companies make money on the program, regardless of how big the storm or the cost to taxpayers. But they won’t make any money on the program if it doesn’t exist.

So, the theory goes, the companies sought to cut the program’s debt to save the program — and they did that by paying homeowners less.

“It was batten down the hatches and circle the wagons,” says Steve Mostyn, a plaintiff’s attorney who joined the fight with other lawyers to sue the insurance companies on behalf of 1,300 homeowners impacted by Sandy. “It was a systematic culture and plan to hold back the losses.”

Mostyn has scoured insurance company documents for almost two years. He points to the repeated hearings Congress has held on Capitol Hill over the past few years asking why this program is so far in debt, and talking about privatizing the flood program or even ending it.

“They’ve had this, ‘You owe Congress 20-something billion-dollar deal’ hanging over their head,” since Katrina, he says. “And I think that they thought if they didn’t protect this pot that they had, if they went deeply into debt again, that there would be a push to end the National Flood Insurance Program. You got to protect the goose that lays the golden egg.”

But to know whether that is right, you would have to know how much the companies are making.

In 2009, a Government Accountability Office audit told FEMA to figure out how much profit the flood insurance companies are making off the flood program and take that into account when it paid them.

Roy Wright runs the National Flood Program for FEMA.

Roy Wright runs the National Flood Program for FEMA. Screenshot courtesy of FRONTLINE (PBS) hide caption

toggle caption Screenshot courtesy of FRONTLINE (PBS)

But Wright, who took over the flood program for FEMA last year, says he doesn’t know how much money the insurance companies make from the program.

“I’ve never looked at the book of business to understand their profits,” he says. “So you’d need to go specifically to the companies to understand those numbers.”

The nation’s largest insurance firms declined to disclose their profit margins on the flood program.

However, every year the insurance companies report what it actually costs them to do their flood work to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, an industry association of government regulators. And every year, FEMA reports what it pays insurers who participate in the flood program. With both numbers, you can do some math. Government auditors used a similar method in 2009.

Based on the latest figures, that analysis shows the insurance companies together made anywhere from $240 million to $406 million a year just on their flood work since 2011 — without having to pay any claims.

A Curious Pattern Emerges Among Homeowner Claims

But if these profits led insurance companies to try to protect a program by paying homeowners less, is it even possible for multiple insurance companies to systematically shortchange people, as hundreds of lawsuits in New York and New Jersey allege?

Far from Superstorm Sandy’s epicenter, in Houston, attorney Mostyn found a curious similarity among many of the homeowners he now represents in his lawsuit against the insurers.

He said he found a pattern among engineering reports that were used to reject or justify lower payments on homeowners’ insurance claims. There seemed to be a template that many of the reports followed, which says the houses hit by the storm were not structurally damaged by the flood but were damaged by “long-term differential earth movement.” That means natural forces over a long period of time damaged the home — not whatever disaster just occurred.

That’s what homeowner Quinn was given for the reason his insurance company, Selective, used to deny much of his claim on his home along the New Jersey coast.

But Quinn was confounded. He had photos of his foundation from a year earlier. He didn’t have any cracks. The day after the storm, large cracks were all over his foundation.

This photo, taken after Superstorm Sandy, shows cracks in the foundation of Doug Quinn's home. The insurance company claimed that the cracks were there before Sandy.

This photo, taken after Superstorm Sandy, shows cracks in the foundation of Doug Quinn’s home. The insurance company claimed that the cracks were there before Sandy. Courtesy of Doug Quinn hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Doug Quinn

Quinn says he wasn’t thinking about whether other people were in his same situation or whether the insurance companies were trying to keep the program costs down. He just thought it was a mistake. So he did what a lot of people did: He appealed to FEMA.

Almost five months later, a FEMA representative replied. The agency had denied his appeal, siding with Selective.

Selective declined to comment on Quinn’s case. But NPR and Frontline obtained a copy of Quinn’s case file. In it were emails between FEMA and Selective that Quinn had never seen before.

We showed the filed to Quinn, and he started to read. As he got to the end, he saw where it says FEMA sent Selective his appeal and then asked Selective to review it and write a response.

First, Quinn reacted with an expletive. Then he said “This is not an objective third party review process. This is complete crap.”

According to FEMA’s own internal documents, FEMA sided with insurance companies almost 75 percent of the time. A government audit recently found that the process received inadequate oversight from FEMA. Wright acknowledges FEMA sent appeals to insurance companies.

Wright says he is making changes to the appeals process to ensure that it’s more transparent and that homeowners get a fair review.

“The appeals process that was in place in the past did not have enough credibility,” he says, adding the appeals have now been moved into a different department separate from claims review. Last year a Senate committee couldn’t find any widespread underpayments of claims.

But since then, FEMA has reopened claims review for anyone who felt underpaid by his insurance company. More than 19,000 people came forward in addition to the 1,700 who sued. So far, FEMA is finding that more than 80 percent of the homeowners were underpaid by their insurance companies.

Doug Quinn stands on the empty lot where his house used to be.

Doug Quinn stands on the empty lot where his house used to be. Bryan Thomas for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Bryan Thomas for NPR

As for Quinn, he sued and eventually settled with Selective. In addition to the $90,000 in claim money that he received, his settlement gave him an additional $130,000. Quinn paid one-third of his settlement in legal fees. Win or lose, FEMA pays all the insurers’ attorney fees.

Standing on his empty lot, Quinn opens a storage container with all that survived the storm: a couple of ceiling fans, boxes from his attic, a hockey helmet.

Until he can rebuild, he’ll keep paying a mortgage and flood insurance on a house that no longer exists.

“I don’t begrudge somebody making a living, and if they do a good living at it, there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “But when they do it on the backs of other people’s misery, it is just wrong and it infuriates me.”

And he, like many other Sandy survivors, feels his government let him down.

Doug Quinn closes his storage container, on the empty lot of his home destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.

Doug Quinn closes his storage container, on the empty lot of his home destroyed by Superstorm Sandy. Bryan Thomas for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Bryan Thomas for NPR

“They can’t begin to fathom the amount of heartache that they’ve created,” he says. “The amount of financial wreckage they’ve created for average people. We’re average middle-class people and we’re in ruins here.”

Frontline’s Emma Schwartz, Rick Young and Fritz Kramer contributed to this story.

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Justice Department To Seek Death Penalty For S.C. Church Shooting Suspect

On Jan. 25, 2015, pallbearers release doves over the casket of Ethel Lance, one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

On Jan. 25, 2015, pallbearers release doves over the casket of Ethel Lance, one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. David Goldman/AP hide caption

toggle caption David Goldman/AP

The Justice Department says it will seek the death penalty against Dylann Roof, accused of fatally shooting nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015.

“The nature of the alleged crime and the resulting harm compelled this decision,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement.

The federal hate-crime charges against Roof “center on both the victims’ race and their identity as church-goers who were attempting to follow their religious beliefs when Roof attacked,” as The Two-Way reported last summer. At the time, Lynch called hate crimes “the original domestic terrorism.” Roof also faces federal weapons charges.

“The Justice Department says he selected the [Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church] and his victims to win notoriety and to try to ignite a race war,” NPR’s Carrie Johnson reports. “Roof has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.”

Roof’s lawyer David Bruck declined to comment on Tuesday’s decision in an email to Carrie.

There is a separate case against Roof filed by authorities in South Carolina. Prosecutors in that case are also seeking the death penalty, as we reported in September.

Survivors of the attack and family members of the deceased victims “had differing views on whether Roof should face execution,” The Charleston Post and Courier says. An attorney for family members of three of the victims told the paper on Tuesday:

“The families will support this decision. Really, I think the families have mixed emotions about the death penalty. But if it’s ever going to be given, this case certainly calls for it.”

Roof is scheduled to be tried in January in the state case. It’s unclear at this point when the federal trial will take place.

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NFL Awards Super Bowls To Atlanta, South Florida And Los Angeles

The Atlanta Falcons' new stadium, seen here on May 16, is currently under construction. The project helped Atlanta win the bid for the 2019 Super Bowl.

The Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium, seen here on May 16, is currently under construction. The project helped Atlanta win the bid for the 2019 Super Bowl. David Goldman/AP hide caption

toggle caption David Goldman/AP

The NFL announced three new sites for upcoming Super Bowls on Tuesday. Atlanta will get Super Bowl LIII in 2019, South Florida will host the following year and Los Angeles will have 2021.

The league had previously announced that the championship game would be held in Houston next year and in Minneapolis in 2018.

Atlanta will be hosting its third Super Bowl ever, and its first since 2000, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. The paper adds:

“The vote capped a year-long effort by the Falcons and Atlanta’s bid committee to secure the game for the $1.4 billion retractable-roof stadium under construction next to the Georgia Dome.

“The bid, titled ‘Atlanta Transformed,’ emphasized the new stadium and its close proximity to other downtown attractions that were not in place when the Super Bowl was last played at the Georgia Dome.”

Earlier this year, the NFL had warned that the city could jeopardize its bid over Georgia legislation that restricted rights of LGBT people. Under pressure from the league and Atlanta businesses, the governor vetoed the bill in March, as The Two-Way reported.

The last time Los Angeles hosted the Super Bowl was 1993, The Los Angeles Times reports; the city’s new stadium is expected to open in 2019.

“There have been seven Super Bowls in the L.A. area, including the first,” the Times says, “but the city was taken out of the rotation when the Rams and Raiders left after the 1994 season.” (The NFL approved the Rams’ move back to Los Angeles in January.)

The Florida Sun-Sentinel notes that the bidding process has become more competitive in recent years “due to the economic windfall that it brings. The league has been favoring cities with new or significantly renovated stadiums.

The stadium in South Florida is undergoing a $450 million renovation by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.

2017: Houston

2018: Minneapolis

2019: Atlanta

2020: South Florida

2021: Los Angeles

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The Judgment Of Paris: The Blind Taste Test That Decanted The Wine World

On May 24, 1976, the Judgment of Paris pitted some of the finest wines in France against unknown California bottles in a blind taste test. Nine of the most respected names in French gastronomy sat in judgment.

On May 24, 1976, the Judgment of Paris pitted some of the finest wines in France against unknown California bottles in a blind taste test. Nine of the most respected names in French gastronomy sat in judgment. Courtesy of Bella Spurrier hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Bella Spurrier

It was the tasting that revolutionized the wine world.

Forty years ago today, the crème de la crème of the French wine establishment sat in judgment for a blind tasting that pitted some of the finest wines in France against unknown California bottles. Only one journalist bothered to show up – the outcome was considered a foregone conclusion.

“Obviously, the French wines were going to win,” says journalist George Taber, who was then a correspondent for TIME magazine in Paris. He says everyone thought “it’s going to be a non-story.”

Taber did show up — as a favor to the organizers. And he ended up getting the biggest story of his career: To everyone’s amazement, the California wines – reds and whites — beat out their French competitors.

“It turned out to be the most important event, because it broke the myth that only in France could you make great wine. It opened the door for this phenomenon today of the globalization of wine,” Taber says.

The Judgment of Paris, as that May 24, 1976, wine tasting has come to be known, began as a publicity stunt. Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who owned a wine shop in Paris, wanted to drum up business. So, prompted by Patricia Gallagher, his American associate, Spurrier decided to stage a competition that highlighted the new California wines they’d been hearing so much about.

Spurrier tapped nine of the most respected names in French gastronomy for the job. They included sommeliers from the best French restaurants in Paris, the head of a highly regarded French vineyard, the owner of one of the greatest restaurants in Paris, and Odette Kahn, the editor of La Revue du vin de France (The French Wine Review.)

As the sole journalist present, Taber had a lot of access, and he had a list of the order of the wines being served during the tasting. The judges didn’t. He watched as they swirled and spat.

At one point, Taber says, a judge – Raymond Oliver, chef and owner of Le Grand Véfour, one of Paris’ great restaurants — sampled a white. “And then he smelled it, then he tasted it and he held it up again, [and] he said, “Ah, back to France!” Taber recalls.

From left: Patricia Gallagher, who first proposed a tasting of California, wine merchant Steven Spurrier, and Odette Kahn, editor of the Revue des Vins de France. After the results were announced, Kahn is said to have demanded her scorecard back. “She wanted to make sure that the world didn’t know what her scores were,” says George Taber, the only journalist present that day. Courtesy of Bella Spurrier hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Bella Spurrier

Except it was a Napa Valley Chardonnay. The judge didn’t know that. “But I knew,” Taber says. And once he realized what was happening, Taber says, “I thought, hey, maybe I got a story here.” Decades later, he penned The Judgment of Paris, an account of that day and its aftermath.

When the results were tallied, the top honors went not to France’s best vintners but to a California white and red – the 1973 Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and the 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. (A bottle of each now resides at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.)

Taber says the results shocked everyone. When it was over, Kahn unsuccessfully demanded her scorecard back – according to Taber, “she wanted to make sure that the world didn’t know what her scores were.”

Wine writer David White says the tasting was a major turning point for the wine industry. “The 1976 judgment totally changed the game,” says White, who writes the popular wine blog Terroirist and is the author of the forthcoming book, But First, Champagne: A Modern Guide to the World’s Favorite Wine.

While winemaker Robert Mondavi played a major role in making California the wine powerhouse it is today, the Paris tasting was equally influential, White says. As the late Jim Barrett, part owner of Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena, told Taber back in 1976, the results were “not bad for kids from the sticks.”

And it wasn’t just California that was transformed. The results “gave winemakers everywhere a reason to believe that they too could take on the greatest wines in the world,” White says.

In the aftermath of the tasting, new vineyards bloomed around the U.S. (think Oregon, Washington and Virginia) and the world — from Argentina to Australia.

The Judgment of Paris prompted the world’s winemakers to start sharing and comparing in a way they hadn’t done before, says Warren Winiarski, the Polish-American founder of Stag’s Leap, whose Cabernet Sauvignon took top honors among the reds in Paris.

As a result, he said at a recent Smithsonian event in honor of that long-ago tasting, “the wines of the world are better, the wines of France are better.”

Which means the world’s wine lovers were the real winners that day.

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For First Time In 130 Years, More Young Adults Live With Parents Than Partners

Men, African-Americans, Hispanics and less-educated young people are particularly likely to live with their parents. But across all demographics, more and more people are living with mom and dad, Pew found.

Men, African-Americans, Hispanics and less-educated young people are particularly likely to live with their parents. But across all demographics, more and more people are living with mom and dad, Pew found. Education Images/UIG via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

For the first time in more than 130 years, Americans age 18-34 are more likely to live with their parents than in any other living situation, according to a new analysis by the Pew Research Center.

In that age group, 32.1 percent of people live in their parents’ house, while 31.6 live with a spouse or partner in their own homes and 14 percent live alone, as single parents or in a home with roommates or renters. The rest live with another family member, a non-family member or in group-living situations such as a college dorm or prison.

"Alone/head of household" includes single parents and people who have roommates or renters living with them; "other" includes those living with family members (not parents), with non-family members or in group housing.

“Alone/head of household” includes single parents and people who have roommates or renters living with them; “other” includes those living with family members (not parents), with non-family members or in group housing. Pew Research Center/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Pew Research Center/NPR

Pew notes that this is not a record high percentage for the number of young people living at home — in 1940, for instance, approximately 35 percent of people in that age range lived at home.

But back then, living with a spouse or partner was even more popular than that. Today not so: More people choose an alternate living situation, and out of the crowded field of choices, life with mom and/or dad has become the top pick for millennials.

Well — some millennials. Men, for starters.

American men age 18-34 live with their parents 35 percent of the time, and with a spouse or partner 28 percent of the time. For women, the numbers are nearly reversed; 35 percent live with a partner, while 29 percent live with their parents.

Living with mom or dad: More common for sons than daughters https://t.co/7SxlYSwEBi pic.twitter.com/gQTFUJZKiU

— Pew Research Center (@pewresearch) May 24, 2016

Less-educated young adults are also more likely to live with their parents than their college-educated counterparts — no surprise, Pew notes, given the financial prospects in today’s economy.

Black and Hispanic young people, compared with white people, are in the same situation.

For black people in particular, the “new” milestone isn’t so new at all. Black young adults have been more likely to live with their parents than in any other situation since 1980. Today, 36 percent of black millennials live with their parents, while 17 percent live with a a spouse or partner.

Meanwhile, taken as a whole, women, white people, Asian/Pacific Islanders and people with bachelor’s degrees are still more likely to live with spouses or partners than with their parents.

But the overall trend is the same for every demographic group — living with parents is increasingly common.

Across the EU, 48% of young adults live with their parents. In Macedonia, nearly 3/4 do: https://t.co/LhHaVr1aqC pic.twitter.com/9zRwdZKO6G

— Drew DeSilver (@DrewDeSilver) May 24, 2016

(Young Americans are still less likely to live with their parents than their southern European friends. In Macedonia, more than 70 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds reportedly live at home, Pew says.)

For many millennials, Pew’s conclusions might seem both unsurprising and easy to explain: The Great Recession happened, of course!

But the rise in the number of young adults living at home started before the economic crash — and so did the possible contributing factors. Male unemployment has been on the rise for decades, Pew says. Even those who have jobs are making less than they would have in their parents’ day — for young men, Pew notes, inflation-adjusted wages have been falling since 1970.

And then fewer young people are married than in decades past. Even accounting for the increased popularity of cohabitation, there are just fewer paired-up 20-somethings and 30-somethings than there used to be.

In general, the study shows how dramatically the living situations of 18- to 34-year-olds have changed since 1880, when the data begins.

Living alone, as a single parent or with roommates — once a rarity — is now the choice of 14 percent of people in that age group. And a full 25 percent of young men are now living with other family, non-family or group quarters.

In 2014, only 71% of 18- to 34-year-old men were employed, compared to 84% of young men around 1960 https://t.co/AqAjsT4QFs

— Lee Rainie (@lrainie) May 24, 2016

Male prosperity rose steadily, and more and more men left the nest — until the ’60s and ’70s, when wages started to drop and more men stayed home.

And women? For decades women who worked were more likely to live with their parents than with a partner or spouse — because wives were discouraged from having jobs, per Pew’s straightforward interpretation.

But now more and more young women have jobs, and it’s unemployed women who are more likely to live with their parents. And yet, even as female prosperity rose, so did the number of young women living at home.

Pew speculated it might because of men’s lower earnings keeping women from marrying and moving out. Seem plausible? The question might make for a fruitful conversation in households across America tonight … just ask Mom to pass the peas and the theories.

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Author Barney Hoskyns On Bob Dylan And 'Small Town Talk'

Bob Dylan as seen on the cover of Barney Hoskyns' Small Town Talk.

Bob Dylan as seen on the cover of Barney Hoskyns’ Small Town Talk. Courtesy of the author hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the author

The mountain hamlet of Woodstock in upstate New York was well known as an artists’ colony even before the mid-’60s influx of musicians. In fact, it was known well enough among the musicians who lived there, particularly Bob Dylan, that it lent its name to the famous festival that actually took place many miles away.

Journalist Barney Hoskyns, a one-time Woodstock resident, has written a book about the town called Small Town Talk. Hoskyns says that Dylan’s longtime manager Albert Grossman was the catalyst for bringing so many musicians to Woodstock. Dylan himself fell in love with the area while staying at Grossman’s estate and quickly found his own niche; his desk and typewriter in the white room above Cafe Espresso saw the birth of many classics.

On Dylan’s 75th birthday, hear Hoskyns discuss the special relationship Dylan and his band had with Woodstock.

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A Guide To The Many Conspiracy Theories Donald Trump Has Embraced

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles following his victory in the May 3rd Indiana primary which cemented his status as the GOP's de facto nominee.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump smiles following his victory in the May 3rd Indiana primary which cemented his status as the GOP’s de facto nominee. JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

This election year may well go down as the conspiracy-theory election, thanks to Donald Trump’s ceaseless efforts to inject unsubstantiated plots into the American political debate.

On Monday, Trump, the de facto Republican nominee, unloaded a double-whammy on his likely Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. An ad posted to Instagram by Trump’s campaign alleges that Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, sexually assaulted several women. In an interview with the Washington Post, Trump also alleged without evidence that Hillary Clinton was involved in the death of Vince Foster, a White House aide who committed suicide in 1993, the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

The facts rarely line up on Trump’s side in these instances, but Trump has a history of making outlandish claims that get lots of attention.

As Yale professor Jason Stanley told NPR’s Sarah McCammon earlier this year, Trump’s embrace of innuendo and controversial statements sends a direct message to his followers.

“He’s communicating, ‘I’m not held to the norms that anyone else is,’ ” Stanley said.

Because it’s going to be a long five-and-a-half months until Election Day (but hey, who’s counting?), here, in chronological order, is a far-from-comprehensive list of conspiracy theories that Trump has embraced.

Birtherism

This handout image provided by the White House shows a copy of the long form of President Barack Obama's birth certificate from Hawaii.

This handout image provided by the White House shows a copy of the long form of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate from Hawaii. J. Scott Applewhite/ASSOCIATED PRESS hide caption

toggle caption J. Scott Applewhite/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The patient zero of Trump conspiracy theories is his 2011 claim that President Obama was not born in the United States and, therefore, not eligible to be chief executive. Backers of that theory came to be known as “birthers” and, to be clear, Trump didn’t start the rumors about Obama’s place of birth. But he used his fame as a reality TV personality to insert the issue into the mainstream media conversation.

In a March 30, 2011 interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, for example, Trump claimed there was no evidence Obama had a valid U.S. birth certificate:

“I have a birth certificate. People have birth certificates. He doesn’t have a birth certificate. He may have one but there is something on that birth certificate — maybe religion, maybe it says he’s a Muslim, I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t want that. Or, he may not have one.”

That claim turned into weeks of cable-news chatter even as fact checkers conclusively determined it lacked any substance. The issue only died down after the White House produced the long-form birth certificate Trump and other birthers claimed did not exist. (Some in that camp still question the validity because the governor of the state when it was released, Neil Abercrombie, was a friend of Obama’s parents.)

Childhood vaccines and autism

Trump has repeatedly embraced the discredited theory that childhood vaccinations can lead to autism. In the second GOP presidential primary debate, hosted by CNN in September 2015, Trump didn’t back down on the claim even when confronted with evidence that vaccines are safe.

“Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

A 2013 study by the Center for Disease Control found no connection between childhood vaccines and a risk of autism.

The September 11th attacks

Campaigning in Alabama last November, Trump claimed that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering. So something’s going on. We’ve got to find out what it is.”

Trump repeated the claim multiple times over the following days, repeating an internet rumor that has circulated since the attacks despite comprehensive reporting from that time that debunked the claims.

Factcheck.org ran down Trump’s various claims and concluded:

What’s clear to us — and should be to Trump — is that there were no widespread televised celebrations in New Jersey on 9/11. In fact, what Trump described would have been big news, and the reporters at the Daily News, Star-Ledger and elsewhere who tried and failed to track down rumors of 9/11 celebrations could have just turned on the TV to get their story.

Antonin Scalia’s death

Just days after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at a ranch in Texas this past February, Trump weighed in on claims that Scalia had been murdered. In an interview with radio host Michael Savage, Trump said “they say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow,” before saying he was unable to respond further.

I wonder if President Obama would have attended the funeral of Justice Scalia if it were held in a Mosque? Very sad that he did not go!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2016

According to the Associated Press, the Presidio County District Attorney cited a letter from Scalia’s doctor that said the 79-year-old justice suffered from a variety of ailments that likely contributed to his death and there was nothing suspicious about his body when it was discovered on Feb. 13, 2016.

Trump also suggested without evidence, that President Obama did not attend Scalia’s funeral because Scalia was Catholic and that Obama might be a secret Muslim.

Ted Cruz’s father and the JFK assassination

On the cusp of wrapping up the Republican nomination contest earlier this month, Trump went to the well of one of the most enduring conspiracy theories in American life: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Jr. in 1963.

Citing an as-yet unsubstantiated story in the National Enquirer, Trump claimed in an interview on Fox News that that his GOP rival Ted Cruz’s father, Rafael Cruz, was spotted with JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald:

“What was he doing with Lee Harvey Oswald shortly before the death, before the shooting? It’s horrible.”

The supermarket tabloid’s claim rests on a grainy, 53-year-old photo that purports to show Cruz alongside Oswald. Facial recognition experts consulted by PolitiFact said there was no evidence Cruz was in the photo and that it was highly unlikely a young Rafael Cruz would have run in Oswald’s circles. The fact checking group rated Trump’s claim “Pants on Fire” false.

President Bill Clinton and claims of sexual assault

https://www.instagram.com/p/BFwTioiGhQj/

Is Hillary really protecting women?

A video posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on May 23, 2016 at 8:27am PDT

Trump’s latest attack ad claims President Bill Clinton sexually assaulted several women while president during the 1990s. It uses archival tape of former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Kathleen Wiley, a former White House volunteer who says Clinton groped her in 1993 and Juanita Broaddrick, who says Clinton raped her in 1978. Clinton did have a sexual relationship with Lewinsky that resulted in an unsuccessful impeachment trial in the U.S. Congress. Lewinsky has never claimed Clinton assaulted her. Clinton denied the Willey’s and Broaddrick’s allegations.

As reported by the Washington Post, an independent prosecutor investigating Clinton at the time found there was “insufficient evidence” to charge Clinton with lying about Willey. Clinton also denied the allegations about Broaddrick and no charges were ever filed against him.

The Post also concludes that Trump’s attacks against Clinton on these allegations are hypocritical given that Trump quoted on the record at the time as being extremely dismissive of the various claims against Clinton (for future reference, the Post’s Glenn Kessler has also done yeoman’s work putting together a short guide to all of the sexual allegations leveled against Bill Clinton).

The White House Deputy Counsel, Vince Foster in the first year of the Clinton Administration. His suicide in 1993 led to a rash of speculation and conspiracy theories.

The White House Deputy Counsel, Vince Foster in the first year of the Clinton Administration. His suicide in 1993 led to a rash of speculation and conspiracy theories. Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images

Vince Foster’s death

This week, Trump also embraced the ur-Clinton conspiracy theory: the 1993 death of White House aide Vince Foster. Foster was an Arkansas ally of the Clinton’s who served as deputy White House counsel at the start of the first Clinton term. He was found dead in his car in Virginia in July 1993.

Foster’s death sparked years of conspiracy-theorizing from Clinton’s opponents about whether the facts behind his death were covered up to hide financial misbehavior in the . Foster’s death was cited in investigations into the Clinton’s real estate investments with the Whitewater Development Corporation (yes, that Whitewater). Multiple investigations by various federal agencies and independent counsels throughout the rest of the 1990s concluded that Foster’s death was a suicide and that was he was clinically depressed when he died.

But in an interview published by the Washington Post on Monday, Trump dismissed those investigations and claimed that the circumstances of Foster’s death were “very fishy”:

“He had intimate knowledge of what was going on,” Trump said, speaking of Foster’s relationship with the Clintons at the time. “He knew everything that was going on, and then all of a sudden he committed suicide.”

He added, “I don’t bring [Foster’s death] up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it. I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”

Bonus: Is Trump’s candidacy a Democratic conspiracy?

Perhaps the best Trump conspiracy theory is the one he doesn’t embrace: that Trump’s candidacy is the product of a conspiracy.

Shortly after he entered the Republican nomination race last summer, blogger Justin Raimondo claimed that Trump was trying to help…get ready for it…Hillary Clinton:

Donald Trump is a false-flag candidate. It’s all an act, one that benefits his good friend Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party that, until recently, counted the reality show star among its adherents. Indeed, Trump’s pronouncements – the open racism, the demagogic appeals, the faux-populist rhetoric – sound like something out of a Democratic political consultant’s imagination, a caricature of conservatism as performed by a master actor.

All I’m saying is there is more evidence that Trump is a Clinton plant than evidence he isn’t pic.twitter.com/RwdAGSV6X8

— David Freedlander (@freedlander) December 7, 2015

After all, Trump was once a registered Democrat, and backed policies such as increased taxes on the wealthy, gun control and single-payer health care. He praised Bill and Hillary Clinton for many years, donated money to them and invited them to his third wedding.

As Trump himself might say, I don’t know if it’s true but it seems fishy.

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