The too slow road home for New Orleans residents

Roy Montague stood outside the government-supplied trailer in front of his New Orleans house and pointed across the street to a line of rotting homes virtually untouched since Hurricane Katrina 15 months ago.

The 60-year-old transit supervisor listed names of the mostly elderly homeowners on his Gentilly-district street and said nearly every one is waiting for thousands of dollars from a much-publicized state relief program to start repairs.

But as of this week, checks from the $7.5 billion Road Home program — centerpiece of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s recovery plans — had been issued to just 39 residents statewide, the Louisiana Recovery Authority said. That is nearly three months after the first payouts.

The wait is a big reason why the formerly leafy suburb remains in suspended animation, with many homes still bearing brown rings showing where Katrina’s deadly floodwaters settled for weeks in 2005 and weeds choking lawns, Montague said.

His neighbor, Reginald Johnson, chimed in: "You’ve got raccoons running wild, you’ve got rats — the rats are unbelievable. That’s why these houses are the way they are — people are waiting on the Road Home."

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged about 200,000 Louisiana homes, 123,000 severely enough to warrant eligibility for aid.

The relief program is designed to provide homeowners up to $150,000 to repair their houses or take a buyout and move. As part of a complex meeting and evaluation process, insurance settlements and other grants are deducted from the total.

Some homeowners and community activists complain delays and complexity only add to painful decisions about whether to rebuild in a city where the population is still at half pre-storm levels of 450,000.

That’s especially true for low-income residents without financial wherewithal to fund rebuilding on their own, said Johnson, 41. His and Montague’s Road Home meetings are not scheduled until early next year. Both have used other means to start rebuilding.


State figures show more than 80,000 homeowners have applied for funds and of those, over 7,200 benefits have been calculated for an average award of $63,741.17.

The puny payout so far is partly due to applicants agonizing over whether to stay or go after learning the amount of their awards, Road Home spokeswoman Gentry Brann said.

"They have to send us back a letter that essentially says, ‘Here’s what my family has decided to do,’" Brann said. "There are a lot of people who don’t know yet what they’re going to do and are taking their time — as they rightly should, it’s a big decision — and will then notify us when they’re ready."

The program is on track to meet a goal of calculating 10,000 benefits by the end of the month, and authorities opened the first out-of-state assistance center earlier last week in Houston to streamline the process for evacuees, she said.

The Road Home has already been fraught with bumps. Last spring, the program, which also includes benefits for owners of rental housing, was held up in Washington as Congress debated whether to include all of Louisiana’s request for recovery money in a $94 billion supplementary spending bill.

President George W. Bush signed the bill in June, and by late August, state officials predicted 42 homeowners would get compensation in the ensuing few weeks. 

© Reuters 2006