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Trying to Make It Home: New Orleans One Year After Katrina

by Bill Quigley

Bernice Mosely is 82 and lives alone in New Orleans in a shotgun double. On August 29, 2005, as Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the levees constructed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers failed in five places and New Orleans filled with water.

One year ago Ms. Mosely was on the second floor of her neighborhood church. Days later, she was helicoptered out. She was so dehydrated she spent eight days in a hospital. Her next door neighbor, 89 years old, stayed behind to care for his dog. He drowned in the eight feet of floodwaters that covered their neighborhood.

Ms. Mosely now lives in her half-gutted house. She has no stove, no refrigerator, and no air-conditioning. The bottom half of her walls have been stripped of sheetrock and are bare wooden slats from the floor halfway up the wall. Her food is stored in a styrofoam cooler. Two small fans push the hot air around.

Two plaster Madonnas are in her tiny well-kept front yard. On a blazing hot summer day, Ms. Mosely used her crutches to gingerly come down off her porch to open the padlock on her fence. She has had hip and knee replacement surgery. Ms. Mosely worked in a New Orleans factory for over thirty years sewing uniforms.

When she retired she was making less than $4 an hour. "Retirement benefits?" she laughs. She lives off social security. Her house had never flooded before. Because of her tight budget tight, Ms. Mosely did not have flood insurance.

Thousands of people like Ms. Mosely are back in their houses on the Gulf Coast. They are living in houses that most people would consider, at best, still under construction, or, at worst, uninhabitable. Like Ms. Mosely, they are trying to make their damaged houses into homes.

New Orleans is still in intensive care. If you have seen recent television footage of New Orleans, you probably have a picture of how bad our housing situation is. What you cannot see is that the rest of our institutions, our water, our electricity, our healthcare, our jobs, our educational system, our criminal justice systems - are all just as broken as our housing. We remain in serious trouble. Like us, you probably wonder where has the promised money gone?

Ms. Mosely, who lives in the upper ninth ward, does not feel sorry for herself at all. "Lots of people have it worse," she says. "You should see those people in the Lower Ninth and in St. Bernard and in the East. I am one of the lucky ones."


Hard as it is to believe, Ms. Mosely is right. Lots of people do have it worse. Hundreds of thousands of people from the Gulf Coast remain displaced. In New Orleans alone over two hundred thousand people have not been able to make it home.

Homeowners in Louisiana, like Ms. Mosely, have not yet received a single dollar of federal housing rebuilding assistance to rebuild their severely damaged houses back into homes. Over 100,000 homeowners in Louisiana are on a waiting list for billions in federal rebuilding assistance through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program.

So far, no money has been distributed.

Renters, who comprised most of the people of New Orleans before Katrina, are much worse off than homeowners. New Orleans lost more than 43,000 rental units to the storm. Rents have skyrocketed in the undamaged parts of the area, pricing regular working people out of the market. The official rate of increase in rents is 39%. In lower income neighborhoods, working people and the elderly report rents are up much higher than that. Amy Liu of the Brookings Institute said "Even people who are working temporarily for the rebuilding effort are having trouble finding housing."

Renters in Louisiana are not even scheduled to receive assistance through the Louisiana CDBG program. Some developers will receive assistance at some point, and when they do, some apartments will be made available, but that is years away.

In the face of the worst affordable housing shortage since the end of the Civil War, the federal government announced that it refused to allow thousands of families to return to their public housing units and was going to bulldoze 5000 apartments. Before Katrina, over 5000 families lived in public housing - 88 percent women-headed households, nearly all African American.

These policies end up with hundreds of thousands of people still displaced from their homes. Though all ages, incomes and races are displaced, some groups are impacted much more than others. The working poor, renters, moms with kids, African-Americans, the elderly and disabled - all are suffering disproportionately from displacement. Race, poverty, age and physical ability are great indicators of who has and who has made it home.

The statistics tell some of the story. The City of New Orleans says it is half its pre-Katrina size - around 225,000 people. But the U.S. Post Office estimates that only about 170,000 people have returned to the city and 400,000 people have not returned to the metropolitan area. The local electricity company reports only about 80,000 of its previous 190,000 customers have returned.

Texas also tells part of the story. It is difficult to understand the impact of Katrina without understanding the role of Texas - home to many of our displaced. Houston officials say their city is still home to about 150,000 storm evacuees - 90,000 in FEMA assisted housing. Texas recently surveyed the displaced and reported that over 250,000 displaced people live in the state and 41 percent of these households report income of less than $500 per month. Eighty-one percent are black, 59 percent are still jobless, most have at least one child at home, and many have serious health issues.

Another 100,000 people displaced by Katrina are in Georgia, more than 80,000 in metro Atlanta - most of whom also need long-term housing and mental health services.

In Louisiana, there are 73,000 families in FEMA trailers. Most of these trailers are 240 square feet of living space. More than 1600 families are still waiting for trailers in St. Bernard Parish. FEMA trailers did not arrive in the lower ninth ward until June - while the displaced waited for water and electricity to resume. Aloyd Edinburgh, 75, lives in the lower ninth ward and just moved into a FEMA trailer. His home flooded as did the homes of all five of his children. "Everybody lost their homes," he told the Times-Picayune, "They just got trailers. All are rebuilding. They all have mortgages. What else are they going to do?"

Until challenged, FEMA barred reporters from talking with people in FEMA trailer parks without prior permission - forcing a reporter out of a trailer in one park and residents back into their trailer in another in order to stop interviews.

One person displaced into a FEMA village in Baton Rouge has been organizing with her new neighbors. Air conditioners in two trailers for the elderly have been out for over two weeks, yet no one will fix them. The contractor who ran the village has been terminated and another one is coming - no one knows who. She tells me, "My neighbors are dismayed that no one in the city has stepped forward to speak for us. We are "gone." Who will speak for us? Does anyone care?"

Trailers are visible signs of the displaced. Tens of thousands of other displaced families are living in apartments across the country month to month under continuous threats of FEMA cutoffs.

Numbers say something. But please remember behind every number, there is a Ms. Mosely. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people each with a personal story like Ms. Mosely are struggling to return, trying to make it home.

Water and Electricity

New Orleans continues to lose more water than it uses. The Times-Picayune discovered that the local water system has to pump over 130 million gallons a day so that 50 million gallons will come out. The rest runs away in thousands of leaks in broken water lines, costing the water system $2000,000 a day. The lack of water pressure, half that of other cities, creates significant problems in consumption, sanitation, air-conditioning, and fire prevention.

In the lower 9th ward, the water has still not been certified as safe to drink - one year later.

Only half the homes in New Orleans have electricity. Power outages are common as hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs have not been made because Entergy New Orleans is in bankruptcy. Entergy is asking for a 25 percent increase in rates to help it become solvent.

Yet Entergy New Orleans' parent company, Entergy Corporation reported earnings of $282 million last year on revenue of $2.6 billion.

Health and Healthcare

Early this month, on August 1, 2006, another Katrina victim was found in her home in New Orleans, buried under debris. The woman was the 28th person found dead since March 2006. A total of 1577 died in Louisiana as a result of Katrina.



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