A Victory for Some of Katrina's Poorest Victims

A federal-lawsuit settlement means that five years after the hurricane and its aftermath, thousands of low-income homeowners in Mississippi will receive funds to rehab and rebuild their dwellings.

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A sign in Biloxi, Miss., in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Sept. 2005.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Five years after Hurricane Katrina tore the roof off of Dorothy McClendon's Biloxi, Miss., home, sending a deluge behind its walls and upending the ramp required for her wheelchair, she is expecting to receive her share of a multimillion-dollar allotment of housing-rehab funds that the Bush administration had tried to divert into expanding that coastal city's commercial port.

"I didn't have no choice but to move back into my house, even though it shifted to the west and was completely unlevel after Katrina. Right now, I would say it's livable and not livable at the same time," says retiree McClendon, 61, who has muscular dystrophy and whose post-Katrina Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer wasn't outfitted for the disabled.

McClendon, whose home has been partially rehabbed by a faith-based organization, was a plaintiff in a 2008 lawsuit filed by the Mississippi NAACP, Mississippi Center for Justice, and Gulf Coast Housing Advocates on behalf of those still waiting to rebuild. In what NAACP officials and housing advocates view as a partial victory on the long road to putting the poorest Gulf Coast residents back into their homes, this week the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reversed a decision to let Mississippi spend -- as GOP Gov. Haley Barbour had requested -- what would have been roughly $600 million on the port instead of on housing redevelopment, as originally planned.

This week's settlement between the litigants and HUD earmarks a fraction of that original amount, or $132.8 million, for housing rehab across nine southern-Mississippi counties. Of that, $98.2 million will go to 4,400 already identified households -- mainly blacks, Latinos and poor whites employed by Biloxi's casino-dependent service economy -- and $40 million for households yet to be tapped for the rebuilding. But unlike the first phase of government-financed, post-Katrina housing redevelopment, which gave grants directly to the region's wealthiest and let them build on higher ground while retaining ownership of their beachfront lots, this next phase places the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) in full control of the $132.8 million. No homeowners will get cash in hand or wholly oversee their own rebuilding.

"My concern is whether the MDA will be fair in its assessment," says James Crowell, president of the NAACP's Biloxi branch. "We wanted an independent organization to run the program because the governor has already said he doesn't believe there are enough people out there to warrant spending that extra $40 million."

Barbour, who is chairman of the National Governors Association and named as a possible presidential contender in 2012, has repeatedly protested granting more money for housing redevelopment in the flood zone. He argues that homeowners who rebuild won't buy enough property insurance as a safeguard against future catastrophes like Katrina, thus jeopardizing the state's property insurers and potentially ultimately demanding that the government underwrite their rebuilding once again.

The NAACP cites that argument as one in a litany of double standards imposed against homeowners rendered homeless by Katrina: Insurers quibbled over whether homes were damaged by wind or water, and if wind was the culprit, they refused to pay up. The government helped underwrite construction of apartment buildings owned by private firms, making renters out of homeowners who were desperate to rebuild on their own land. Some had to relocate farther away from Biloxi, whose population is 50,644, according to latest census data available.

"It's been this sort of attempt to purge the poor and deny them property ownership on the coast, where they still live and work and are having to absorb the additional cost of getting to and from a job that pays $8, $10, $12 an hour in the casinos, hotels and restaurants," says attorney Derrick Johnson, statewide NAACP president.

"Some of the homes in my neighborhood are just sitting there. Some people are living in their house. This is hurting to see," says McClendon, a former government purchasing agent who lives in Soria City, an all-black neighborhood named for and established in the late 1920s by a white developer. "During the press conference about the settlement, I got pretty shook. Katrina just came rushing back; I could see it all over again. But I'm so thankful and happy and overwhelmed that finally the government heard us."

Nevertheless, Johnson adds, the government could have been far more supportive: "In the broader scheme of redevelopment, these five years of waiting have limited the options of the working poor. It's kept them from even envisioning how they could rebuild. Insurance costs have escalated, and those policies can be even more expensive than people's mortgages. Does this settlement cover all the need? No. But five years out, this is a step in the right direction."

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