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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.

The waterfront casinos that provide a large chunk of this state's revenue are humming. The vast majority of residents are back in their rebuilt homes, although thousands are still struggling to find affordable housing because their recovery checks did not cover the cost of the damage.

Despite the improvements, many gaps remain.

The New Orleans area has regained more than 90 percent of its pre-Katrina population, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

But in the city itself, just 78 percent of the population has returned, and a growing share of the region's poor now reside in the suburbs. The city's population drop has been most severe in black neighborhoods, many of which absorbed Katrina's most brutal blows.

Despite well-publicized recovery efforts, including a plan led by actor Brad Pitt to build 150 solar-powered homes, just 24 percent of the Lower Ninth Ward's pre-storm population has returned. There, newly rebuilt homes stand next to vacant lots or crumbling houses. Entire blocks remain desolate five years after the storm.

In middle-class Pontchartrain Park, not far from historically black Dillard University, just 55 percent of households have rebuilt, according to the data center.

Beyond the problems with Road Home, New Orleans has experienced a dramatic spike in rental costs since the storm.

"Many low-cost apartments are gone with the wind and the water," said Laura Tuggle, the outgoing managing attorney of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. "Now, we're left with New York rents on New Orleans wages."

In Mississippi, where Katrina severely damaged more than 101,000 housing units, many residents face what advocates call a similar inequity. Praised in the aftermath of Katrina for his can-do attitude, Gov. Haley Barbour (R) received a series of waivers from the Bush administration that largely freed Mississippi from the requirement to spend at least half of his state's $5.5 billion in federal block grant money on low- and moderate-income residents. Barbour successfully argued that the waivers were necessary to give the state flexibility to deal effectively with the widespread devastation.

That allowed the state to divert close to $1 billion to help devastated utilities rebuild, to subsidize residents' insurance premiums and to help fund the port and other economic development projects. Meanwhile, advocates say that more than 5,000 low-income Mississippi families have yet to settle in permanent housing since the storm.

State officials say they are expanding the number of public housing units beyond pre-Katrina levels and establishing programs to encourage development of affordable rental housing.

Still, advocates say the more than $3 billion distributed by the state's housing recovery program went disproportionately to more-affluent residents. The plan paid up to $150,000 to homeowners whose properties were damaged by the unprecedented storm surge spawned by Katrina, but nothing to those whose homes suffered wind damage.

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