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Relief, Finally.

News & Features | December 6, 2010

Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, devastating the lives of thousands in its path. In the months following the storm, the area saw an influx of committed volunteers and a considerable amount of support. Only three years later, however, the country has almost forgotten. But after five years of advocacy, efforts are finally coming to fruition: on November 15, federal and state officials announced the inauguration of a $132 million housing program to help the impoverished and deprived hurricane victims of Mississippi.

This aid could not be more necessary. In 2008, I took a service trip to the region. The destruction we saw spoke for itself: homes once bubbling with the sugary scents of southern cooking reeked of toxic and infected debris. Yet in August 2010, the five-year anniversary of the storm, volunteer numbers were no better than when I travelled south two years earlier; nor were the conditions in the states that were hit hardest.

There are still an extraordinarily large number of people living in ruined areas. According to reports in the Sun Herald of South Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina conquered 70 miles of the state’s coast and destroyed 65,380 homes. Damages from the storm were estimated to total over $125 billion, well beyond the allotted amount of government aid. For those who decided to remain in their hometowns after the storm, this neglect has led to growing frustration.

In the past, it’s seemed that the lowest-income housing residents have been excluded from governmental help, which has focused on reinvigorating devastated gulf coast’s infrastructure. For example,  Mississippi dedicated $570 million in housing funds toward renovating a shipping port in Gulfport. A few months later, a group of public-interest lawyers sued the Department of Housing and Urban Development for illegally diverting federal disaster money from victims.

After a federal judge dismissed the 2008 lawsuit, the lawyers appealed the decision. When research and analysis of the residential problems in the area proved to officials that a plethora of citizens were being denied aid and that even more were not seeking needed help, the governor set up an intensive, improved outreach program for hurricane victims. The appeal has been dismissed and the project’s leaders are looking into how they can increase awareness of the project so that those in need can apply the compensation they have long been seeking.

This new housing program was designed to try and reach those who have previously been unable to receive aid from the government. The program outlines strict eligibility stipulations for those that can receive monetary aid; recipients need to be below a certain income level, and any damage needs to be a direct result of hurricane flooding. Based on estimates of surveyed damage, $93 million was set-aside for these victims. In the New York Times, former Biloxi mayor Gerald Blessey noted that a large number of people in need were still being excluded from government aid. Forty million more has been set up in a reserve fund for those overlooked or who have not yet applied for aid.

There are some, however, who think that broad-spectrum techniques like these are not the solution. According to Robert Green, a resident of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, leaders should look to Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation for an answer. “Make It Right’s goal is to bring Lower Ninth Ward families displaced by Hurricane Katrina back home,” says Christopher Moore, the foundation’s executive administrator. “We are building safe, sustainable homes and hope our efforts will have a catalytic effect on the redevelopment of the community.”

The key in rebuilding, Green says, is that “you don’t just come and bring strangers, you utilize the community to help it grow.” He noted that many of the households that populated the destroyed neighborhoods were multi-generational, so bringing back one family really ensures a strong future for the community. This focus on bringing families back to not only rebuild their physical homes but to recover their vibrant pre-Katrina community is a method, says Green, that other efforts should emulate.