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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.

This month, a federal judge ruled that the program's formula for calculating grants discriminates against black homeowners, who tend to live in neighborhoods with lower home values.

"We obviously disagree with the judge's action, which has stopped us from paying out some grants, and already have appealed it," said Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the Road Home program. "I think it is worth noting that the state did not create this program in a vacuum - the federal government signed off on the design of the program and any major changes we made along the way."

She added that the state has modified the program to pay out an additional $2 billion to more than 45,000 low-income homeowners. Overall, Road Home paid $8.6 billion to more than 127,000 homeowners.

Many of these simmering issues will not be visible when President Obama arrives here Sunday to mark the fifth anniversary of the storm that killed more than 1,800, uprooted more than 1 million Gulf Coast residents, and left 80 percent of this city submerged.

The visit is expected to underscore the president's support for a region still reeling not just from Katrina but from the largest oil spill in the nation's history, which is threatening the region's immediate economic future. A regional group of business and political leaders formed a coalition this week aimed at holding Obama to his promise to restore the Gulf Coast.

Obama's visit will also underscore the strides made since the breached floodwalls and overtopped levees left people here camping on highway overpasses, cowering in attics and retreating to the squalor of the Superdome and the Convention Center to escape the deadly waters.

The surreal landscape of grounded boats, washed-up appliances and mud-choked streets is long gone, and many of the most obvious scars from the catastrophe are healing. The Army Corps of Engineers has rebuilt 220 miles of levees and floodwalls.

The school system, widely viewed as one of the nation's worst before the storm, has been reborn with many charter schools. Though activists have filed a lawsuit alleging that special-needs students are being underserved by the new education structure, 59 percent of city students are in schools that meet state academic standards - more than double the number who attended such schools before Katrina.

The storm ravaged the city's hospital system, leaving many residents in the largely black eastern part of the city a long ambulance ride from emergency health care. At the same time, more than 90 neighborhood health clinics opened and are showing promise at delivering preventive care and helping people manage chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

But there is concern that many of the health centers, funded with federal grant money that is winding down, are struggling to draw enough insured patients to become self-sufficient.

"Everyone now has to transition to a more sustainable model of health care," said Sarat Raman, associate medical director of Daughters of Charity Services of New Orleans, which operates three clinics that serve 15,000 patients in the area. "You have to have a balance of patients."

Along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, where the violent winds and an unprecedented storm surge overwhelmed homeowners, sheared off roofs and splintered houses, the scene has also improved.


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