Hurricane Katrina: 511 Days Later and Little Progress

BY EHREN BRAV

I recently traveled with a group of HLS students to New Orleans for a week of pro bono legal work. This is my second trip there and I came back pondering what has changed in a year.

The federal government appropriated $4.2 billion for the Road Home program, which compensates homeowners for otherwise uncovered losses. The program is the largest single housing recovery program in US history, but of about 100,000 applications it has received, the program has made a paltry 200 or so distributions of cash. Many people who lost their houses in the storm are currently living in rental apartments or trailers being paid for by FEMA. But this money will soon run out, and there are already many complaints that people need to fight for what assistance they still receive.

The Lower Ninth achieved national notoriety after the storm as one of the areas worst hit by the levee failure. When I visited last year, a barge that once floated on the canal rested some 200 feet on land, deposited on top of a school bus. Houses were torn up and deposited a good distance away. Others had simply vanished, leaving only concrete slabs where they once stood. Most poor areas in the United States are comprised of mostly rental properties, but many residents in the Lower Ninth passed their houses down for generations, making their destruction that much more poignant.

New Orleans has been demolishing many of these damaged homes under public nuisance laws, for which there is no compensation. One woman I spoke with owned a house in the Lower Ninth that the city recently demolished. She and her family are now living in a rental apartment paid for by FEMA, but this money may soon run out. She is one of the lucky ones, having purchased flood insurance before the storm, but the $30,000 she received on her policy covers only a small portion of the damage. Her only remaining hope for compensation is the Road Home program.

The post-hurricane city looks nothing like it did before. Demographers are predicting that New Orleans will only be half of its pre-Katrina size. The French Quarter survived the hurricane largely unscathed, but bars remain half-full, help wanted signs are everywhere, and a subdued hush rests over the neighborhood. Many other areas of New Orleans are ghost towns. Large public housing projects are boarded up and fenced off, their residents still scattered across the country.

Across the border in Mississippi’s Bay St. Louis, the only sound breaking the silence is the monotonous rhythm of a pile driver rebuilding the bridge that once spanned the bay. There, and in nearby Waveland, nearly every house has been obliterated. All that remains are miles of concrete slab foundations.

While we were in New Orleans, State Farm reached a settlement agreement with these homeowners in Mississippi. The insurance company has already paid $1.1 billion in Mississippi for wind damage but was sued by other policyholders for not paying for Katrina’s storm surge damage. In low lying areas along the Gulf Coast, the surge damage was far greater as the sea rose up some sixty feet and simply swallowed hundreds of houses. These claimants will get an average of $125,000 a piece, potentially costing the company hundreds of millions. The settlement may pave the way for similar agreements in Louisiana, but until then, victims of the storm must get by on their own savings, FEMA aid, and whatever else they can scrape together.

Louisiana’s criminal justice system remains in shambles. Before we left Boston, we were acutely aware of New Orleans’s exploding crime rate. By the time we arrived, eight people had been killed in ten days, making New Orleans a likely candidate for murder capital of the country again. Despite the string of homicides, the last murder conviction was in August of last year, and even that was later reduced to a lesser charge.

The public defenders are woefully overworked and law enforcement struggles to combat the rapidly rising crime. A New Orleans’s chief juvenile judge recently sentenced a public defender to 36 hours in jail after becoming upset that no public attorney was in his courtroom at the beginning of the day. The judge left the bench, drove to the public council service office, and waited for the chief of trials to arrive. He brought the lawyer to his courtroom and promptly found him in contempt. Par for the course these days in New Orleans.

The hurricane was at once blind to differences in class – destroying the homes of both rich and poor alike – and exposed these differences in real time that week when the nation’s focus was fixed on New Orleans. For this brief moment, race and poverty were at the center of attention. The moment soon came to an end and national attention shifted back to Iraq, immigration, and the 2006 elections. But the reality there remains: per capita income in Louisiana was just $24,820 in 2005, the lowest of the fifty states. The shocking failure of the relief effort during the hurricane was prelude to failures of the federal, state, and city governments in the following months and year. Although many programs are up and running, the pace of resettlement and rebuilding is woefully slow. Too many people have fallen between the cracks of insurance, FEMA, and state and city aid programs, and little has happened to correct the underlying problems so starkly apparent during the storm.

Ehren J. Brav is a student at Harvard Law School and the Fletcher School of Diplomacy.

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