Katrina Housing Battle Continues Six years ago, Hurricane Katrina blew up the Gulf Coast, killed more than 1,800 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. On the Mississippi coast, thousands still live in battered housing, trapped by a technicality: Their homes were damaged by wind gusts rather than Katrina's storm surge.
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'Left Out': Post-Katrina Housing Battle Continues

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'Left Out': Post-Katrina Housing Battle Continues

'Left Out': Post-Katrina Housing Battle Continues

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Six years ago today, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast killing more than 1800 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. The story of the coast's recovery varies from place to place. For some, life is back to normal. But along the Mississippi coast, thousands still live in battered houses.

As NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, they've been trapped by a technicality. Their homes were damaged by wind gusts rather than Katrina's storm surge.


KATHY LOHR: In Biloxi, railroad tracks separate some of the neighborhoods that got the most help from those that got little or no aid.

CHARMEL GAULDEN: We are now in East Biloxi. We're walking a neighborhood across from Beck Park.

LOHR: Charmel Gaulden with the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center gives us a tour along Division Street.


LOHR: On the south side of the railroad tracks, homes are freshly painted with new roofs. On the other side, battered fences surround structures that are still boarded up. Gaulden says the water may not have swamped these homes, but the wind took them out and people have not been able to recover.

The housing programs were initially designed to deal with that storm surge but not the wind damage when the wind damage affected all communities instead of the community just on one side of the tracks.

Activists say it was predominantly African-American communities that were affected by wind. Like with many situations related to Katrina's recovery, Gaulden says race is part of the story.

I think, you know, there would have been a different response if elderly white people had been the only folks affected.

Back in 2008, civil rights groups sued the Federal Housing Department to compel the state to spend recovery money on poor and minority residents who they said were left out. The lawsuit documented clusters of unmet needs; people living in substandard homes with makeshift plumbing, faulty electricity and mold and mildew problems. Reilly Morse is with the Mississippi Center for Justice, one of the groups that sued.

REILLY MORSE: The core allegation of the complaint was the state had failed to extend assistance to wind-damaged homeowners and that the effect of that was to disproportionately leave out of the recovery African-American households.

LOHR: After much negotiating and an agreement to drop the suit, HUD, the state and civil rights groups announced a $132 million settlement last November. Fred Tombar is a senior HUD advisor, and he says the state made a policy decision that the federal government didn't agree with.

FRED TOMBAR: What it took was for this administration to go down and walk the communities and see that there were families who were not back in their homes or if they were in their homes, they definitely weren't in homes that were safe and sanitary.

LOHR: Gerald Blessey, the state's Gulf Coast Housing director, says there've been two major programs that have rebuilt more than 50,000 units of housing. And Blessey says officials didn't leave anyone out intentionally.

GERALD BLESSEY: Did we miss this last group? Yes. But we've caught them because we wanted to. And sure, we wish we'd gotten to it sooner. But for their sake, we're going as quickly as we can now to solve this problem.

LOHR: One of those expected to get help from the new Neighborhood Home Program is Dorothy McClendon. She's 61 and disabled and uses a cane to get around her modest wooden home in Gulfport.


DOROTHY MCCLENDON: How are you all doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's good to see you. Thank you for having us out.

LOHR: Recently, inspectors came out to survey the extent of the damage. Dorothy says water ran down the walls of her paneled bedroom like a fountain. The sour, moldy smell that remains has been here for six years.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This room has never been taken down to the studs per se?

MCCLENDON: No. No, it has not.


MCCLENDON: I had so much structural damage because the house shifted. My house actually moved.

LOHR: Dorothy got $5,000 from FEMA, but she didn't have enough insurance to cover the repairs. She's one of thousands still living in battered homes.

MCCLENDON: I couldn't understand why myself and others could not get any help years ago. And even with this go-round, you know, it's just taken too long in my opinion, because I don't think they anticipated this many people was left out. But the whole time, we're saying, yes, we are out here.

LOHR: Jackie Washington in Biloxi is also waiting. She lives on the north side of the railroad tracks and she got wind and water damage. Jackie's shotgun style house has been restored and looks good from the outside. But she says the problems are hidden.

JACKIE WASHINGTON: The inner workings, like the plumbing, is bad. The electrical sockets are amazingly bad, and then you have just other things that you cannot see.

LOHR: Katrina ravaged Jackie's place, tore off the roof and gutted her home. Jackie often takes care of her 2-year-old granddaughter, Tiffany, who's coloring at the kitchen counter.

WASHINGTON: What color, red?


WASHINGTON: Red, brown...

LOHR: Jackie says she got about $65,000 from FEMA and through state grants to rebuild what had become a shell of a home. But she says she ended up with inferior supplies and volunteers who didn't know how to fix the plumbing and electricity. About a week ago, Jackie found out the state denied her application for help. She's planning to appeal.

WASHINGTON: If you're not the squeaky wheel, if you don't stand, if you don't shout it from the mountaintops, who's going to know?

LOHR: More than 17,000 people have applied for this latest housing program, twice as many African-Americans as whites. But Mississippi officials say less than one quarter are likely to be eligible. Activists disagree and say six years after Katrina, they're counting on the state to keep its promises. Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

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