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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.

To be eligible for the initial grants, families had to have homeowners insurance, although the state later devised a program that paid grants of up to $100,000 to low-income, uninsured homeowners whose properties were damaged by the storm surge.

The rationale, state officials said, was that responsible homeowners had no way to know that they should have flood insurance in areas that federal experts deemed to be outside the flood plain.

"The storm surge was the priority," said Lee Youngblood, communications director of the Mississippi Development Authority. "Mississippi had no intention of compensating people who chose, for whatever reason, not to have wind insurance."

That formula struck some advocates as discriminatory. "The criteria discriminated against black storm victims, who more likely than not were renters, or, if homeowners, more likely than not lacked insurance," said Reilly Morse, co-director of housing policy for the Mississippi Center for Justice.

The state's formula had the effect of freezing out people whose homes were destroyed by the wind, which along much of the Mississippi coast meant black residents who often lived in paid-off homes that had been handed down through the generations. The expensive waterfront property was mostly owned by whites, while inland property, which suffered more wind damage, was owned largely by blacks.

In Gulfport, a railroad embankment that has long served as an informal racial demarcation line became a levee when Katrina hit.

As the surging waters crashed through their patio door and rose five feet in their home, a white couple, Ernest and Doreen Chamberlain, gathered their family and sought refuge on the black side of the tracks.

Coming upon an old, wood-frame house he thought was abandoned, Ernest Chamberlain began trying to break the door down, only to be surprised when it was opened by Irene Walker, an elderly black woman.

"She was like, 'Mister, what are you doing?' " he recalled. "Then she invited us in."

That's where the Chamberlains rode out the storm, even as raw sewage backed up into the Walker home.

Five years later, the Chamberlains are back in their sunny home. Although they had to fight with insurers and contractors, they secured a $150,000 grant from the state to help repair the flood damage, which totaled nearly $200,000.

Meanwhile, the Walker home sits abandoned. A church group installed a new roof, but the interior remains untouched. The 82-year-old Walker, meanwhile, is living with family members a few miles away.

"She hasn't gotten any help from the government for the house," said Occelletta Norwood, Walker's niece. "She got a little money from FEMA at the start, but that was it."

fletcherm@washpost.com Research editor Alice R. Crites contributed to this report.


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