Red Tape Awaits Katrina, Rita Victims

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Residents of the Gulf Coast whose homes were severely damaged by hurricanes Katrina or Rita must navigate layers of bureaucracy before they can return to their homes and rebuild.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Hundreds of thousands of people in the New Orleans area no longer have homes. Some want to rebuild. Others want to move somewhere else and buy a new place, but very few are able to do either yet. They're being told they must wait, wait for an insurance adjuster or a government official to make a decision about the state of their houses. NPR's Adam Davidson reports.

ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

Steve Extrastein(ph) isn't supposed to be able to see his house. His New Orleans neighborhood, Lakeview, is closed to the public, but he found a back route in and is seeing his place for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. STEVE EXTRASTEIN: It's demolished. I want everything to come back to normal. See, when I started talking about it--I can't talk about it, Ma. I can't talk about that.

DAVIDSON: He wanted to see the house for himself. Now he knows that there is nothing salvageable. The home was under 10 feet of water. There's mold everywhere. Everything inside is wrecked.

Mr. EXTRASTEIN: It's all gone. All gone. I'm living in a trailer. It's got roaches everywhere. My kids are afraid. I just want my house back. That's all I want. And it's going to be years. I can see it already.

DAVIDSON: By most accounts, Extrastein is right. It will take years for him to have a home again. Here is a partial list of the people who will have to visit and inspect his home before he makes the first move: an insurance adjuster, a separate flood insurance adjuster, a FEMA inspector, a state environmental quality inspector, a city building inspector. Extrastein is a truck driver. He says he'll have to take off work and wait for every one of them. And for him, the process hasn't even begun yet. No inspectors have come by. Ray Stone runs Catastrophe Management for St. Paul Travelers insurance company.

Mr. RAY STONE (Catastrophe Management, St. Paul Travelers): We move through them pretty quickly, but this will be months, months and months before we're done with this.

DAVIDSON: Travelers has hundreds of adjusters in the New Orleans area working sunup to sundown; so do most insurance companies and FEMA, but there are so many damaged houses, more than in any previous disaster. The lucky homeowners have already received either insurance or FEMA checks, but others will have to wait. Yesterday, parts of the city were open to residents and adjusters for the first time. Again, Ray Stone of Travelers insurance.

Mr. STONE: The scoping and the estimating and the repair process is just going to start today for large, large areas of the New Orleans metro area.

DAVIDSON: No matter when any inspectors arrive, there are likely to be conflicts. The federal government covers most claims due to flooding while private insurers cover damage from wind. For many houses, insurance experts say, there will be conflicts between insurers and the government over exactly who is responsible for paying for the damage. This infuriates Lakeview resident Steve Extrastein.

Mr. EXTRASTEIN: You read in the papers that they're arguing about who's going to pay for what. It shouldn't be about that. We need to bring the city back and the only way you're going to do that is homeowners and FEMA and the government and everybody coming together to fix it. And if they don't come together to fix it, it's not coming back.

DAVIDSON: Many have decided not to come back to New Orleans. For them, the process might be easier. They will have to wait a few weeks or months to get an insurance check, but then they can buy a house somewhere else. Extrastein says he's staying. He wife and kids want to live right here. So even after he gets an insurance check, he has a whole other round of bureaucracy to deal with. He has to get permission from the city and state to rebuild in a flood zone on property that might be contaminated. And that's even before he tries to hire a contractor. Adam Davidson, NPR News, New Orleans.

ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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