Uneven Katrina recovery efforts often offered the most help to the most affluent

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, the most obvious scars from the catastrophe are healing, but a big disparity persists in the aid given to poor and affluent to rebuild their lives.
By Michael A. Fletcher
Friday, August 27, 2010; 12:12 AM

IN NEW ORLEANS The massive government effort to repair the damage from Hurricane Katrina is fostering a stark divide as the state governments in Louisiana and Mississippi structured the rebuilding programs in ways that often offered the most help to the most affluent residents.

The result, advocates say, has been an uneven recovery, with whites and middle-class people more likely than blacks and low-income people to have rebuilt their lives in the five years since the horrific storm.

"The recovery is really the tale of two recoveries," said James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. "For people who were well off before the storm, they are more likely to be back in their homes, back in their jobs and to have access to good health care. For those who were poor or struggling to get by before the storm, the opposite is true."

Louisiana's program to distribute grants to property owners whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Katrina was found by a federal judge this month to discriminate against black homeowners.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, state officials refused to offer rebuilding grants to property owners who suffered wind damage, explaining that the property owners should have carried private insurance. That rule hit low-income and black homeowners particularly hard, advocates say, because many of them were uninsured, often because they owned property that was passed down through the generations.

The $143 billion federally funded reconstruction effort, one of the largest such projects in the country's history, fortified vulnerable levees, rebuilt hundreds of public buildings, reconstructed miles of roads and bridges, and provided tens of thousands of residents with money to help piece together their shattered lives.

But there is a sharp disparity in how residents view the pace of recovery. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that while seven in 10 New Orleans residents say the rebuilding process is "going in the right direction," a third say their lives are still disrupted by the storm.

African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to say they have not yet recovered after Katrina, the survey found. And blacks in the city are 2 1/2 times as likely to be low-income than whites.

"I just knew we had a rotten deal," said Edward Randolph, a disabled Vietnam veteran who with his wife, Angela, has been struggling to rebuild their duplex in New Orleans East. "We know we have a lot to do, but we just do not have the money to do it."

The storm propelled them on a years-long odyssey through Port Arthur, Tex., Houston and Arkansas. They did not return to their still-damaged home until 2008.

The federally funded rebuilding program established by Louisiana officials - called Road Home - offered homeowners grants of up to $150,000. But homeowners could not collect more than the pre-storm value of their homes, regardless of the cost of repairs.

The Randolph home was valued at just $135,000, although repair costs were estimated by the state to be $308,000. The Randolphs were awarded a grant of $16,649, to supplement just over $100,000 they received in insurance payments.

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