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Housing Problems Persist Two Years After Katrina

August 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST
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TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Two years after Hurricane Katrina, most of the Big Easy’s low- and middle-income neighborhoods are still a mess. The infamous Ninth Ward is a wasteland. Most of the homes have been bulldozed, their foundations lost amid towering weeds.

Houses were left standing in other areas, but many have been abandoned. About a third of New Orleans’ residents, more than 300,000, simply never came back.

In contrast, parts of the Gentilly neighborhood are starting to look almost normal, at least on the streets where the flood waters weren’t very deep. A year ago, Lamona Chandler was living in a FEMA trailer, the nearby streets mostly deserted. Now she’s back in her house, and she says most of her neighbors are back, too.

So what percentage of people are back?

LAMONA CHANDLER, Resident, New Orleans: We have the largest percentage in the city. And we have almost 80-some-odd percent back.

TOM BEARDEN: No kidding?

LAMONA CHANDLER: Yes, this lady here is back, and they’re working on the inside of their house over there. When I came back the first time, I said to myself, I said, “I can hear the hammers and the saws.” I said, “That means that everybody is working and coming back.” And that’s exactly what happened.

Some neighborhoods see few return

K.C. King
New Orleans resident
They [FEMA] weren't getting support from the White House, so they stopped those payments. This particularly penalizes those people who are returning to the devastated areas and desperately should elevate.

TOM BEARDEN: But further north in Gentilly, next to the levee where the water was 12 feet deep, far fewer people have returned. Part of that may be a distrust of the rebuilt levee system and uncertainty about the future of the neighborhood. It's created the Jack-o-Lantern effect, a few houses sticking up here and there like gap-teeth.

K.C. KING, Resident, New Orleans: About 30 percent of the lots on our neighborhood are in this condition.

TOM BEARDEN: K.C. King is a retired software engineer and neighborhood activist. He says only about 17 percent of the neighborhood is habitable.

K.C. KING: This one, it has been gutted. They've taking the law board off. They've taken the mold off. But, obviously, they haven't made arrangements to have the property be neighborly maintained.

TOM BEARDEN: King, whose own home was demolished, lives in a motor home. He keeps the grass mowed on adjacent lots and hopes the city will clean up the abandoned properties soon.

When we first met him earlier this year, he was fighting to get money from a state-operated recovery program called the Road Home. Finally, after reams of paperwork and months of waiting, King was able to get enough money to start making plans to rebuild. But he can't start construction until he gets an elevation grant to put the new house on stilts to avoid another flood.

About $2 billion of funding has been put on hold because state and federal officials disagree about how it should be distributed.

K.C. KING: The state has been in negotiation with FEMA since last June, and they couldn't come to agreement. They weren't getting support from the White House, so they stopped those payments. This particularly penalizes those people who are returning to the devastated areas and desperately should elevate.

Government slow to provide help

Michael Malone
Almost on a daily basis, we see how America is funding billions and billions of dollars in restoration projects in these other countries, but we need to take care of home first.

TOM BEARDEN: There is one consistent complaint we heard from nearly everybody we talked to in New Orleans: that government took far too long to deliver far too little help. There is great frustration with what is viewed as a vast bureaucracy more dedicated to complying with endless procedures than it is to helping people actually rebuild their homes.

Bo Field lives in a FEMA trailer park. His barbershop destroyed, he occasionally cuts hair in the trailer to help make ends meet. Once in a while, he visits his gutted house in the Ninth Ward, wondering if he'll ever get the money to repair it.

He went through the Road Home process, too, only to get a nasty surprise when he went to the closing. Field had received a letter saying he would get just over $90,000, but when he sat down at the table, they offered him just over $52,000, saying they had new information about his home. Field says that information was wrong.

BO FIELD, Resident, New Orleans: When they was getting ready to go to the close, that was one of the happier moments that was in my life, because then I knew I was on my way out of that trailer. And I'll tell you, when I got out of there, and when they got through with me, I was more upset, I was more angry than I was the day of the flood.

TOM BEARDEN: Field declined the offer and is appealing. Field's experience isn't an isolated one: Michael and Keiana Malone say they, too, haven't been able to get the money they were promised from the state program.

KEIANA MALONE, Hurricane Katrina Victim: The Road Home keeps promising and promising, and every time we called, it's always a different excuse why it's taking so long for the money to get here.

TOM BEARDEN: Keiana and their two children are living in a small town in Georgia apart from Michael, who came back to his job as the chief bellman at a downtown hotel. The children say it's tough not seeing their dad for months at a time.

MICHAEL MALONE III, Hurricane Katrina Victim: It's a pain that no one else should want to feel.

KAYLA MALONE, Hurricane Katrina Victim: Every night, I just cry, because I miss my dad.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you cry a lot, like your mom says?

KAYLA MALONE: Yes.

TOM BEARDEN: Michael Malone says he's fed up with the situation.

MICHAEL MALONE, JR., Hurricane Katrina Victim: I mean, we've been failed in all facets of the government, national, state, local, everyone, you know? Almost on a daily basis, we see how America is funding billions and billions of dollars in restoration projects in these other countries, but we need to take care of home first.

A complex project

Mike Taylor
The Road Home
It's a very complex project. It's a huge project, the scope and scale of which has never been done before. So it took a lot of time to get it started on the front end.

TOM BEARDEN: Mike Taylor, who runs the Road Home program for the state of Louisiana, defends the program.

MIKE TAYLOR, The Road Home: It's a very complex project. It's a huge project, the scope and scale of which has never been done before. So it took a lot of time to get it started on the front end. We expected that. But, you know, now we're where we want to be. We're moving. And I think, ultimately, we will finish this program about a year earlier than was originally anticipated.

TOM BEARDEN: If things as you say are moving along, and speeding up, and people are getting the money that they deserve and need, why are so many people angry at the program?

MIKE TAYLOR: Well, you've got to realize this is probably the most emotional process anyone has ever gone through in their life. If you think of the fact that the home is the largest single investment that most families ever have, there are a lot of things that go into factoring that. And as I said earlier, we want to move this as quickly as possible, but recognize that we can't respond as quickly as everyone would like us to.

TOM BEARDEN: The state has received 180,000 applications from homeowners and hopes to have settled with half of them by the end of the year. As for the city, officials put several recovery plans on the table after the storm, but most were discarded because of political opposition of one sort or another.

ED BLAKELY, New Orleans Office of Recovery Management: Now, this is the kind of stuff we've really got to get rid of.

TOM BEARDEN: The latest blueprint comes from urban planner Dr. Ed Blakely, the city's so-called "Recovery Czar." He was hired by Mayor Ray Nagin at the beginning of this year to develop and implement a rebuilding plan for the city.

ED BLAKELY: The biggest challenge is really not the physical rebuilding; the biggest challenge is getting the people together. You know, there are underlying issues in the city, social issues, and we're trying to solve those issues as we rebuild.

TOM BEARDEN: What kind of issues do you mean?

ED BLAKELY: Well, we had, to be quite frank, poverty, intense poverty in this city. Race relations were not good, and you can't rebuild and leave those things in place. So what we're going to do is go into neighborhoods, and take three or four lots, fix them up, and that will have a ripple effect across the whole neighborhood.

TOM BEARDEN: Blakely wants to give people incentives to cluster on higher ground in 17 commercial areas and fill in those neighborhoods first. But K.C. King says the planners have waited too long, that individual homeowners have been forced to act on their own.

K.C. KING: So the people who are driving this recovery are individual decisionmakers. And if you can detect a pattern in what they're doing, if you can detect any, you know, planned activity, it's just not there. And so the planners are waiting way behind, saying, "Hey, wait for me." So their planning seems to have degenerated down into 17 commercial activities, and let the homeowners do whatever they will. So that's not what I call a success story.

TOM BEARDEN: But Blakely is an optimist. He even insists it's not going to be difficult to rebuild the Ninth Ward.

ED BLAKELY: We're going to go into the Ninth Ward and build entire neighborhoods out. So some of the properties we already own. We have some old parks and other things that we already own. And we're going to come back, and we're going to offer these people who lived in the Ninth Ward an opportunity to come into those places first.

Getting people off the streets

Ed Blakely
Office of Recovery Management
We just have to apply the money we have skillfully. The American people have been very generous to us, but the money that was supposed to leave Washington didn't, and those expectations are now being carried through.

TOM BEARDEN: While there seems to be some movement benefiting homeowners, there's little going on in the rental market. A severe shortage of affordable housing has had a huge impact on people who have the fewest resources.

HOMELESS ADVOCATE: Even the hotels are pretty high, yes.

TOM BEARDEN: Clarence White and Brennan Rhodes work for Unity of New Orleans, an advocacy group for the homeless.

HOMELESS ADVOCATE: I think the goal needs to be that we both get you guys healthy and get you off the streets.

HOMELESS CITIZEN OF NEW ORLEANS: That's what I want.

TOM BEARDEN: The homeless population has exploded because of the lack of public and low-income housing, according to Unity's executive director, Martha Kegel.

MARTHA KEGEL, Unity: We are seeing over 10,000 people now living in abandoned buildings as a result of the storm, plus another approximately 2,500 living in other homeless situations out on the street or in homeless housing. We're seeing people as old as 88 years old who are very disoriented living in abandoned housing.

TOM BEARDEN: Kegel says agencies like hers are running out of money and need outside help. Dr. Blakely says that initially the state and federal governments had not released all the money they promised for rebuilding housing, but he says that's starting to change, and he thinks the city has enough money to proceed with the broader recovery effort.

ED BLAKELY: I don't think we need more money. We just have to apply the money we have skillfully. The American people have been very generous to us, but the money that was supposed to leave Washington didn't, and those expectations are now being carried through. The money that was supposed to leave Baton Rouge didn't, but those expectations are now coming through.

So when the money comes, we have to use it well. We don't need more money now; we need more smarts.

TOM BEARDEN: Blakely says most of the neighborhood reconstruction programs should be complete within three years. He concedes that many New Orleanians who feel betrayed by two years of inaction will be hard to convince, but he says skeptics will see major progress in the next few months.