The Gulf Coast's Recovery: Uneven And Uneasy Four years after Hurricane Katrina, housing is still elusive for some storm victims. In the small fishing villages along the Alabama Gulf Coast, the storm made a hardscrabble life even harder. One town is using federal money to move residents to higher ground, but not everyone wants to go.

The Gulf Coast's Recovery: Uneven And Uneasy

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Here we are almost four years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall off the Gulf Coast and some people are still struggling to find housing. NPR is taking a look this week at those still struggling on the coast. And today NPR's Debbie Elliot takes us to small fishing villages along the Alabama shore.

DEBBIE ELLIOT: You might think that homes and businesses would be on the rebound from Hurricane Katrina's devastation, and some are. You can see the signs of recovery in Southwest Alabama - new homes built high on pilings, and thriving shipyards building crew boats to service offshore oil rigs.

But venture a little deeper into neighborhoods and the scars remain.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Ms. STEPHANIE BOSARGE: Like I said, I get up every morning and look this way. It's all gone. Everything's changed.

Stephanie Bosarge walks through the weeds on her family's property in Coden, Alabama. She still lives next to where her mother's house and the family's oyster plant used to stand.

Ms. BOSARGE: The shop was over here, and as you see, what's left, the concrete slab, she had a big old house right here. It went way out to the front here. And she had nine kids and the majority of us all worked right back here at one time or other. It was the mainstay for the family.

ELLIOT: After 40 years in business, Nelson and Sons Seafood was washed away by Katrina's storm surge. Kudzu vines now grow over the concrete where a conveyor belt once carried oysters to 60 shuckers.

Bosarge says the family can't afford to rebuild. There wasn't enough money left after insurance covered outstanding debt, and they haven't qualified for a government loan. Bosarge says it's not right.

Ms. BOSARGE: This has been a hard-working little area that's never, ever been served, never asked for anything, never got anything. It's done nothing but what you see: seafood, and seafood is work.

ELLIOT: Now Stephanie Bosarge and her brother, Paul Nelson, spend their time trying to get more aid for local storm victims as part of the South Bay Community Alliance. Nelson, a commercial fisherman, also lost his boats. At 58, he says, it's too late to start over.

Mr. PAUL NELSON: They look at us today and say, well, you know, it's four years after a hurricane — what's your problem? Well, my problem is homeless, jobless, and no future. Because we're on our knees and we can't get up.

ELLIOT: Nelson says he can't even afford to rebuild his home because of new post-Katrina construction requirements. But officials hope the new rules for flood-prone areas will help prevent the kind of destruction that Katrina wrought.

In nearby Bayou La Batre, Alabama, nearly half of the city's 2,300 residents were left homeless after the storm. Mayor Stanley Wright says most have now rebuilt or moved to a new housing development the city created away from the water.

Mayor STANLEY WRIGHT (Bayou La Batre, Alabama): And we built 100 FEMA homes out there, on higher ground - that's 82 foot above sea level. And I named it Safe Harbor Estates and Safe Harbor Landing. You know, eventually I'd like to get all the homes in the low-lying areas mitigated out to higher ground, to where we don't have to keep going through this same thing every time.

ELLIOT: The city used a $15.6 million FEMA grant for the subdivisions, which opened last year. There's a waiting list to get in. Residents pay 20 percent of their gross income for the first year and then have an option to buy the colorful modular homes lining what used to be a cow pasture.

In front of her lemon yellow four-bedroom cottage, Belinda Wilkerson has planted a garden.

Ms. BELINDA WILKERSON: Everybody talks about how pretty my flowers are.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOT: She brought the day lilies from her home that flooded in Katrina. The mold had gotten too bad for her asthma, she says. She moved here four months.

Ms. WILKERSON: The house is nice. The house really is nice - so far.

ELLIOT: But it's been a hard transition for Wilkerson, whose husband lost some of his fingers on a shrimp boat shortly after Katrina and is now on disability. They've always lived independently on their own land, she says. Now there are strict rules to follow. She couldn't bring her outdoor sheds, has to pay extra to keep her dog in the yard, and had to leave the boat behind.

Ms. WILKERSON: We got a fine oyster skiff. It's at my friend's.

ELLIOT: I imagine that having a boat in your…


ELLIOT: …is pretty normal around here, right?

Ms. WILKERSON: Should be. Everybody's a seafood worker, supposed to be.

ELLIOT: It's a stark contrast to the streets around the bayou, where boats are parked in front yards, oyster shells line driveways, and shrimp nets are strung up on oak limbs to dry.

Part of the challenge here is a culture closely tied to the Gulf. Families have lived near the water and made a living from it for generations. And some don't like being told they have to elevate their homes or move their trailer.

Driving a pickup truck through Bayou La Batre, city building inspector Tommy Reynoso says it's now against city ordinances to live in a FEMA trailer. He says four years later, it's time to get out.

Mr. TOMMY REYNOSO (Building Inspector): We've got guidelines, we've got rules, we've got regulations. We all have to follow them. And that means you. We're just wanting you to understand, we want to make you safe.

ELLIOT: Reynoso says only two people still remain in FEMA trailers, and he's been trying to move them to safe harbor. One of them lives just a block off the water, amid the shipyards and seafood processing plants that line the bayou.

Becky Barbour climbs out of her trailer as her scruffy black dog, Scarlett, sounds the alarm.

(Soundbite of dog barking)


ELLIOT: Barbour unbolts the chain-link fence around her property and we sit down on the tailgate of her small pickup. The city has notified her she must be out of the trailer by the end of the month or could face fines and jail time.

Ms. BARBOUR: Yeah, he's trying to make me move off my land. I don't have no money, you know, to go rent nothing else. I don't. I mean, I'm poor, and I don't have no money to go do that.

ELLIOT: Barbour is a small, wiry woman who appears older than her 54 years. She occasionally works shucking oysters and collects aluminum cans, but mostly survives with the help of family and friends who pay her utilities and bring food. She and her husband rode out Katrina in the loft of their wood-frame house because the fuel pump went out on their truck and they couldn't evacuate.

Ms. BARBOUR: We lost everything. We didn't have nothing left — nothing. I finally found a can of snap beans. And he opened it up with his pocket knife. And I'd eat one, he'd eat one.

ELLIOT: And they gave some to the dogs. Her husband has died, and the dogs are all she has left, along with the land she's lived on for more than 33 years.

Ms. BARBOUR: I'm going to stay right here. This is my land and I ain't going nowhere. I'm sorry. It's just about to push me over the edge. I don't know how much more I can take.

(Soundbite of sniffling)

ELLIOT: I'd be fine, she says, if they'd just leave me alone.

Debbie Elliot, NPR News, Orange Beach, Alabama.

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