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Back Home in New Orleans, Survivors Reflect on Hurricane Katrina

August 27, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Betty Ann Bowser returns to New Orleans to see how three families are coping five years after Hurricane Katrina.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Before President Obama makes his Iraq speech next week, he and the first lady will travel to New Orleans Sunday to mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

NewsHour correspondent Betty Ann Bowser returned to the Louisiana coast recently to revisit three families we first met in 2005.

HELENA JONES, New Orleans: I think we have done a great job, considering all the odds that were against us.

BO FIELD, New Orleans: There’s always some good going to come out of the bad, so I’m praying and I’m hoping for the good.

K.C. KING, New Orleans: There was no serious — yes, we will help you come back safer, stronger, smarter, that was — those were empty words and — and slogans.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Three families who managed to survive the chaos of Katrina, five years later, they’re back home, but the journey has been littered with roadblocks and empty promises. And, today, they’re still not whole, emotionally or financially.

We first met Helena and Melvin Jones in November of 2005, when they escaped the floodwaters to live with one of their seven children in an Atlanta suburb. Their Pontchartrain park home of 40 years on the east side of New Orleans had been completely destroyed, along with their retirement dreams. Back then, a family-owned gift shop in the French Quarter had to be closed, and Melvin was frustrated at how slow recovery was moving.

MELVIN JONES, New Orleans: Here we are, over three months away from what happened back then, and, really, nothing has happened, absolutely nothing.

HELENA JONES: Well, it smells like New Orleans with potato salad.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some weeks later, they did come back, but to a rented apartment in Algiers, across the Mississippi River, in an area where they knew no one. They reopened the store and tried to piece together enough money to fix their shattered home.

HELENA JONES: I would come every day and sit in that back room and just cry and wonder, you know, if we were ever going to get back. And this is our memories of Hurricane Katrina.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Eventually, they did. With a $75,000 check from the state’s Road Home Program and their life savings, they rebuilt their ranch home, where they live today. But many of their neighbors didn’t have enough money to do the same thing.

MELVIN JONES: Most of the homes are empty. In fact, most of the area of Pontchartrain Park, I would say 60 percent of the people have not returned.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Why did most of them not come back?

MELVIN JONES: The government didn’t really reach out to help them. We went into this to be done for over $100,000, and we still owe $90,000.

HELENA JONES: The federal government should have been a little fairer with all the people to try to make people whole again, people that — our age who really want to come home, and a lot of them are dying because of the stress that they are going through, and can’t come home.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Road Home Program was funded by the federal government, but it was administered by the state. It gave grants to homeowners to help rebuild. Technically, it ended earlier this summer, although counselors are still processing a few hundred outstanding claims.

The program has been mightily criticized for being inadequate, inefficient, and discriminatory against black homeowners.

But director Robin Keegan defends its record, saying it’s spent over $8 billion and helped 127,000 families.

ROBIN KEEGAN, Louisiana Recovery Authority: The Road Home Program wasn’t to make people whole. It was to assist people in their recovery plan, to help them reoccupy their homes. Unfortunately, we were — the state wasn’t given enough resources to make every person whole that were impacted by these storms. But we have — we have made efforts to make sure that people can get as much money as possible through this program.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The program did help many people return, and parts of the city, like the French Quarter and Uptown, are thriving today.

According to a study by the University of New Orleans, the city’s population is at 78 percent pre-storm levels — 70 percent of the jobs have also returned. And the public school system is undergoing a complete transformation. But many challenges remain. There has been a 49 percent increase in rates, and nearly 65,000 vacant residential units are scattered all over the city.

Most of the neighborhoods that were underwater look like this one today. They are a patchwork quilt of empty lots, new construction, and houses like this one that hasn’t been lived in, in five years.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Ninth Ward. There, empty, overgrown lots are adjacent to beautiful, brand-new houses built by actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. The foundation has also built playgrounds, like this one next to barber Bo Field’s house. When we spoke to Field in 2007, he had just discovered the Road Home Program was only going to give him $52,000 to rebuild, about half of what he said he needed.

BO FIELD, New Orleans: I will tell you, when I got down there and when they got through with me, I was more upset, I was more angry than it was with the day of the flood.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But now, five years after the flood, Field has been able to make enough repairs on his own that he was able to move back in.

So, there are still things that you would like to be able to do?

BO FIELD: Yes, I still got plumbing work I got to do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And he’s become more content.

BO FIELD: Five years ago, I was frustrated. It took some time for me to stop being angry, and not really knowing what you’re angry about. But I am much better today. I mean, we — we’re thankful for what we have. We’re thankful for where we have made it to. But it could have been a much easier ride.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: No one would agree more with that assessment than retired software engineer K.C. King. We first met him when he was living in an R.V. parked next to his destroyed home in the Gentilly neighborhood. He had applied for $100,000 from the Road Home, and was stunned when he was told no.

K.C. KING: They said they were very sorry, but that there was no grant available to help me restore my home.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: King refused to give up. Eventually, he got over 100,000 Road Home dollars. That, he cobbled together with much of his retirement money, and built this tribute to elevation.

So, how many feet did you rebuild above what you were required to do?

K.C. KING: Well, we’re 11 feet off the ground, and we’re, I think, seven feet above what we were required to build, of course, which is a major issue, that they don’t want to pay you for the extra safety.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How much extra money did it cost you to do that?

K.C. KING: I would say that’s about — about $70,000 worth.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And that was just for the elevation part; the whole thing cost upwards of $400,000.

Some people might say that was foolish, given the fact that his property is adjacent to a flood wall that has not been improved since Katrina. But King says he thinks he’s safe from any future storms.

K.C. KING: My house and its contents will survive. Because of the height we built and the materials we used in construction and the design concepts, we’re about as flood-proof as you can make a house.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But King says he can’t say the same about his neighborhood or the rest of the city. He says there’s been no comprehensive plan to prevent another disaster from happening.

K.C. KING: The thing that even frustrates me more is when they made the decision to value growth over safety.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So, you’re talking that there was more interest in getting people to come home?

K.C. KING: Yes, constituents, fodder for real estate developers. Getting people back to have a vibrant recovering economy has been more important than getting people to come back feeling safer than they did before Katrina.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: King feels that way, in spite of the fact that the federal government is spending $15 billion to shore up the city’s flood walls and levees.

What no one knows is what would happen if another killer hurricane came through. But in spite of all that, the Jones family, Bo Field, and K.C. King all say, it’s good to be home.