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New Orleans Homeowners Seek Federal Aid to Rebuild

November 23, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN: More than a year after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their homes and months after the government promised them billions of dollars in relief, angry Louisiana homeowners protested on the steps of the capitol Saturday.

Under a program called “The Road Home,” 77,000 homeowners have applied for federal grants to rebuild their homes.

But so far only 28 families have received any money, leading some to feel their “journey home” has hit another roadblock.

Across the state, thousands of houses have been gutted and await repairs. Thousands more haven’t even been touched.

State officials say they, too, are frustrated by the delays. Walter Leger is with the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

WALTER LEGER, LOUISIANA RECOVERY AUTHORITY: It seems that there’s, there’s kind of a catch in the process and the process is we have to verify to HUD, we have to prove to the federal government that there’s been no duplication of benefits. And the verifications, through SBA and FEMA, amounts that they’ve paid the homeowners, has been difficult and slow.

Getting re-started

Sharon Karriem
I think if more people would come back and rebuild, the community would come back. It begins with one person at a time.

SHARON KARRIEM: A lot needs to be done, so I really need that Road Home program to help.

TOM BEARDEN: Sharon Karriem needs the money to rebuild her house in the Lower Ninth Ward.

SHARON KARRIEM: You have to wait. I've been waiting and I've been waiting a long time.

TOM BEARDEN: And it was supposed to go faster than that, wasn't it?

SHARON KARRIEM: Yes, it was.

TOM BEARDEN: Karriem's house is just a few blocks from the infamous levee break that flooded the Lower Ninth Ward. She's one of the few residents to return so far. Her home is flanked by empty houses. There's a dormant elementary school on the corner.

SHARON KARRIEM: I think if more people would come back and rebuild, the community would come back. It begins with one person at a time.

TOM BEARDEN: Karriem shares a one-bedroom FEMA trailer with her son, his pregnant wife and the couple's 5-year-old son. He is driven all the way across the city to one of the few neighborhoods where school's operating.

SHARON KARRIEM: He has to get out of here and get to school.

TOM BEARDEN: When we met Karriem last winter, she had lost not only her house but a delicatessen business she had started just three months before the storm. She's back in business again, thanks to a stroke of luck. She applied for and won a franchise for a sandwich shop.

SHARON KARRIEM: No you wasn't going to get in trouble, all you needed was cheese.

TOM BEARDEN: Now Karriem has a new set of problems -- keeping employees. Her staff has turned over every month she's been in business. Knowing most are hurricane victims themselves, Karriem is sympathetic to their problems.

SHARON KARRIEM: I have a lot of people have to travel back and forth, because some were displaced and they needed to go back to Texas to take care of whatever they needed to take care of.

Working six hours away

Renee Wells
I have a key, and that's a good thing, it's a good thing cause it feels like home.

TOM BEARDEN: Karriem has turned to her family for help, employing her sister, her son, her daughter-in-law and even her mother to keep the store going. Those staffing problems may soon get worse.

The Louisiana Transportation Department has announced it will stop providing free bus rides for displaced people living in Baton Rouge and working in New Orleans. Those buses now carry 1,000 people a day on the three-hour round trip, many of them working low-wage jobs.

MAN ON BUS: If these buses weren't running a lot of people would lose their jobs, they wouldn't have no way back and forward to work.

TOM BEARDEN: Renee Wells commutes from much further than Baton Rouge. She shuttles back and forth to Houston every other week -- a six-hour trip each way. She's a physical therapy technician, a job she had before the storm. She tolerates the commute because the family needs the money to rebuild their gutted home.

RENEE WELLS: I have a key, and that's a good thing, it's a good thing cause it feels like home.

TOM BEARDEN: It may be months before the home is habitable, so her husband and teenage son are living in Houston.

RENEE WELLS: Although it hurts inside that I'm not there with him, we have to think about what's the best outcome afterwards. And so I'm here working. He's there working and we have our minor son that he has to take care of and he needs to be in a good school with better structure.

TOM BEARDEN: Which you couldn't get here?

RENEE WELLS: You definitely you can't get that here right now. You could barely get the trash man to pick up your funky trash.

TOM BEARDEN: Back in Houston, Renee's husband Thomas Wells has taken the lead on parenting.

THOMAS WELLS: My man, I think we're going to have leftovers.

CHRIS WELLS: Leftovers?

THOMAS WELLS: Yeah, yeah.

CHRIS WELLS: I'm going to have the leftovers, what you want? I'm gonna fix my own food.

THOMAS WELLS: It's very hard to be apart. You know, I mean we have been together for 22 years. And we have always been around each other except for the couple hours that we both work, you know, and then we're back home and we're back together.

TOM BEARDEN: After losing a job he held for 11 years because of the storm, Wells has only been able to find temporary jobs working in factory production lines. He says Houston employers don't want to hire Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

THOMAS WELLS: I think it's a fear because many employers may, may feel or think that if they would hire someone from Louisiana that it would only just be for a temporary thing and they're going to up and leave. It could be, if they hire you, they're going to go back so many times you rebuild the home and they have to leave to take care of their business.

TOM BEARDEN: The Wells family hasn't applied for a Road Home grant because they don't think the money will ever actually materialize. So for now, doing the repairs they can afford.

THOMAS WELLS: Everybody is talking out the side of their neck. Promises, promises, promises. And that's from the White House on down you know, to New Orleans, to the government, to the mayor. You know.

TOM BEARDEN: You seem pretty disgusted.

THOMAS WELLS: Oh yeah, because everybody is not, not doing what they say they're going to do for the people. I mean there is, there is very little sensitivity in the areas that they're supposed to be very high sensitivity. From your elected officials, from your mayor, from your governor, even from the president. You know, even from there. Any time when he dropped the ball, well, I guess everybody else should drop the ball also. And that's what people feel, as though that they are forgotten.

Deciding to relocate

Amy House
The kids go outside, they're in rocks. And you know they throw rocks or whatever and they're filthy all the time with the dirt and the sand and the mud out there.

TOM BEARDEN: Back in St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans, Amy and Shannon House have spent the last year living in mobile homes on a lot next door to the Domino Sugar factory where Shannon works. When the family's rental property in St. Bernard Parish was destroyed, they moved into a 28-foot travel trailer provided by FEMA and the sugar company.

When we visited them eight months ago, they were understandably claustrophobic from living in such cramped quarters with five sons under the age of 10. They got a bigger mobile home in March, but it's still pretty crowded.

SHANNON HOUSE: It's oppressive you know. It's really, it's like you don't leave work. It's like you're in a camp, a work camp. You live here, you ride the bike over there or walk over there.

AMY HOUSE: The kids go outside, they're in rocks. And you know they throw rocks or whatever and they're filthy all the time with the dirt and the sand and the mud out there. The baby can't go play because he puts rocks in his mouth. He's almost 2 you know.

TOM BEARDEN: Like many in Louisiana, the House family faced a difficult choice -- where to put down roots in a post-Katrina world. They considered buying a house in the parish, but instead decided to relocate to Picayune, Miss., 50 miles away.

So sometimes in the next few months, Shannon, who works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, will start making that 100-mile round trip to the sugar plant every day. He's willing to do it because he doesn't want to raise his sons in the rubble of one of the nearby subdivisions.

SHANNON HOUSE: We could have got a place down here, plenty of places for sale down here. You can get them real cheap and you know put the money into it and fix it up, but there's 30 other houses on the street that are demolished, you know, gutted out and having five kids, that plays a part in the decision-making, you know, any decision you make. So, you know, if we do buy something down here close to the work, you know, work here obviously, but where are the kids going to play? Are they going to be digging in these gutted out houses? Getting hurt? Stepping in, you know tall grass, people that aren't cutting their grass, stuffs, nails, whatever glass in it?

TOM BEARDEN: Amy's mother Diane Fugate has applied for a Road Home grant and has an appointment for the initial interview -- on July 20.

DIANE FUGATE: That's like ridiculous. I mean it's going to take me as long to get interviewed, and I said, OK, so once, tell me where I will be in the process. And she said, well once you go for your appointment, you will be at step 4 or a 7 or 9 step process. And I said, oh, my god.

TOM BEARDEN: Road Home officials say they've hired more operators and say people can now get much faster service. But it may be difficult to convince many New Orleanians, who feel burned by broken government promises in the past, that they should stick it out and be part of the reconstruction of this ruined city.