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'Left Out': Post-Katrina Housing Battle Continues

Six years ago Monday, Hurricane Katrina blew up the U.S. Gulf Coast, killed more than 1,800 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. The story of the coast's recovery varies from place to place.

For some, life is back to normal. Along the Mississippi coast, thousands affected by Katrina still live in battered houses. They've been trapped by a technicality. Their homes were damaged by wind gusts rather than Katrina's storm surge.

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

On the south side of the tracks in east Biloxi, homes are freshly painted with new roofs. On the other side, battered fences surround structures that are still boarded up. Charmel Gaulden with the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center 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," she says, "when the wind damage affected all communities, instead of the communities just on one side of the tracks."

Activists: Race Plays A Role

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

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

Back in 2008, civil rights groups sued the federal housing department to compel Mississippi 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.

"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," says Reilly Morse, who is with the Mississippi Center for Justice, one of the groups that sued.

After much negotiating and an agreement to drop the suit, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the state and civil rights groups announced a $132 million settlement last November.

Fred Tombar, a senior HUD adviser, says the state made a policy decision that the federal government didn't agree with. "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 homes," he says, "or if they were in their homes, they definitely weren't in homes that were safe and sanitary."

Gerald Blessey, the state's Gulf Coast housing director, says two major programs have rebuilt more than 50,000 units of housing. He says officials didn't leave anyone out intentionally.

"Did we miss this last group? Yes. But we've caught them because we wanted to," he says, "and sure we wish we'd have got to it sooner, but for their sake we are going as quickly as we can now to solve this problem."

Still Waiting For Help

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.

Recently, inspectors came out to survey the extent of the damage. McClendon 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.

"I had so much structural damage because the house shifted. My house actually moved," she says.

McClendon 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.

"I couldn't understand why myself and others could not get any help, years ago," she says. "And even with this go around, you know, it's just taken too long in my opinion because I don't think they anticipated this many people [were] left out. But the whole time we [were] saying, 'Yes, we are out here.' "

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

"The inner workings — like the plumbing — [are] bad. The electrical sockets are amazingly bad, and then you have just other things that you cannot see," she says.

Katrina ravaged Washington's place; it tore off the roof and gutted her home.

Washington says she got about $65,000 from FEMA and through state grants to rebuild what had become a shell of a home. However, 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, Washington found out that the state had denied her application for help. She's planning to appeal.

"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?" she says.

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

This story was produced for broadcast by Marisa Peñaloza.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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