Storm-Related Tax Deductions Confound Rita Victims

The IRS provides a deduction for people who house hurricane evacuees. Many people in southwest Louisiana who opened their homes to Katrina evacuees were forced to evacuate themselves, less than 30 days later, for Hurricane Rita. This means they don't qualify for the deduction.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Southwest Louisiana, some small towns were almost completely wiped out by Hurricane Rita, which struck nearly a month after Katrina. People living in Southwest Louisiana say the attention paid to Katrina and its victims has overshadowed their suffering.

They point to government benefits offered to Katrina victims but not to those affected by Rita. The most commonly offered example is a tax deduction for people who housed Katrina evacuees.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

Wanda Jinks(ph) lives in a modest house outside Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her ex-son-in-law lives an hour away in Johnson's Bayou.

Ms. WANDA JINKS: He's one of my kids. Him and my daughter are divorced, but he's still one of my kids.

BRADY: He came to live with Jinks after Hurricane Rita destroyed his house.

Ms. JINKS: It had seaweed all around it. It was just unbelievable. You couldn't help but cry when you saw it, you know?

BRADY: He had seaweed in his house?

Ms. JINKS: Oh yeah, seaweed in the hose and all around the house. We had to walk on a, to get in there to look we had to walk on a probably four or five foot mound of seaweed that was just all around his house.

BRADY: That's stunning. How close is he to the water?

Ms. JINKS: Probably a mile.

BRADY: Jinks says her ex-son-in-law stayed with her for a little over two months. She'd heard there was a $500.00 tax deduction available for those who housed hurricane evacuees, but she got a surprise when she asked about it.

Ms. JINKS: They told me only Katrina. People that housed people for Katrina, not for Rita. Rita is a forgotten storm. It really is. It's sad.

BRADY: Travel around Southwest Louisiana and you'll hear people say this over and over.

Congressman Kevin Brady's East Texas district also suffered a lot of damage from Rita. He sits on the House Ways and Means Committee and says there were difficult discussions in Congress over which Katrina benefits would be extended to Rita victims. He says the hurricanes affected people differently, and so different help was needed.

Katrina victims have been homeless for months, and many had to move far away. But Brady says evacuations didn't last as long for Rita victims.

Representative KEVIN BRADY (Republican, Texas): For the most part, people came back pretty shortly, and they stayed with family a lot. So that was not seen as high a priority as being able to cover all the damage, being able to deduct all the damage that occurred to people's property.

BRADY: Brady says lawmakers also were concerned about setting a precedent, that victims of every hurricane from here on out would want the same benefits Katrina victims got.

Another congressman, Charles Boustany from Louisiana, says he welcomes any help, but he thinks those who housed Rita evacuees should be able to claim the same tax deduction as those who housed Katrina evacuees.

Representative CHARLES BOUSTANY (Republican, Louisiana): The only other remedy would be to try to make something retroactive, and we, in the Louisiana delegation, have had some discussions about trying to introduce a bill to create some retroactivity with this. But it'll be a steep hill to climb.

BRADY: Wanda Jinks says she's already filed her taxes this year and has put the issue behind her. But she says she's not sorry she helped out her ex-son-in-law. She'd do it again.

Still, she's angry Rita's victims are being treated differently than Katrina's.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

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