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'Road Home' could be long

Louisiana's new state disaster recovery program could fail to meet the needs of the most vulnerable hurricane survivors, no matter how well-designed it is, say concerned responders.

BY SUSAN KIM | BATON ROUGE, La. | September 12, 2006

"While by design the state's Road Home program does provide some measures that could assist homeowners, we're very concerned about the actual implementation of the program."

—Davida Finger

Louisiana's new state disaster recovery program could fail to meet the needs of the most vulnerable hurricane survivors, no matter how well-designed it is, say concerned disaster response leaders.

The "Road Home" program - the largest single housing recovery program in U.S. history - has already distributed close to $2 million to hurricane survivors who badly need it. But for thousands of others the road home could be long, arduous or simply unnavigable.

Responders cite tight paperwork requirements, potential travel expenses and lack of help for renters as the indicators that people who already have more resources will be the ones who benefit most from Road Home.

Eligible homeowners affected by Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Rita may receive up to $150,000 in compensation for their losses. Homeowners can apply online or by mail.

In addition, the program will loan funds to restore and construct rental properties through its Small Rental Assistance Program.

After applying, applicants will be contacted by Road Home program staff to schedule an initial appointment at a Housing Assistance Center. There are 10 Housing Assistance Centers set up across South Louisiana.

Responders worry that hurricane survivors who haven't gotten back to Louisiana will have less access to Road Home funds. Financial assistance for travel is not included in the Road Home program, and so far appointments are held only at the centers in South Louisiana.

"While by design the state's Road Home program does provide some measures that could assist homeowners, we're very concerned about the actual implementation of the program," said Davida Finger, Louisiana state coordinator for Oxfam America's Gulf Coast emergency response. "We're very concerned that those with the least access to resources to understand and avail themselves of the program are going to be the biggest losers once again."

A Road Home spokeswoman suggested those still living outside Louisiana consider using Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds or money from voluntary agencies to foot their travel to appointments.

Even if hurricane survivors can travel to their appointment, proving home ownership will be difficult for many of them - and that's a key requirement for accessing Road Home funds.

"So many people in New Orleans live in houses that have been handed down by family members, often informally without any change in deed," explained the Rev. Cliff Nunn, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. "Searching through who owns a home will take an inordinate amount of work," he said.

Floodwaters washed away many records as well, he added - meaning residents with access to lawyers who can navigate the maze of public records could stand to benefit more. "Already, I have lawyers in my congregation being approached with questions on how to establish clear ownership," he said.

Applicants absolutely need to prove home ownership, confirmed Carol Hector-Harris, public information officer for Road Home. "You have to," she said. "You must. I've had some women call fearing their ex-husbands will steal the property. That is a huge thing."

The state has set up tight controls to guard the program from fraud, she added. "We are taking photographs and electronic thumbprints," she said. "We're doing everything we can to prevent fraud."

Does that mean this could be a slow process for people? Yes, said Steve Zimmer, vice president for community mobilization for the United Way for the Greater New Orleans Area. However, he quickly adds, that's the very nature of long-term recovery. "I believe a year from now people are still going to be waiting for checks," he said.

The waiting game is starting to be a burden for long-term recovery committees, he said. "We are not supposed to come into play until after insurance, SBA (Small Business Administration), FEMA and all those other resources have been exhausted. Well, now we've got to add to that mandatory list the Road Home program. That makes our job even more difficult."

There is also hardly any real support for renters, Zimmer acknowledged. "The truth is there is still not much out there to help the renter. Even long-term recovery committees tend to be geared toward the homeowner."

Meanwhile, caseworkers are wondering how people will fare while they're waiting for their money, said Kimberly Durow of Odyssey House Louisiana. Durow, a Katrina Aid Today program coordinator, said caseworkers have been informing homeowners about Road Home. Katrina Aid Today (KAT) - funded by a FEMA grant - is a national case management consortium comprising nine faith-based and voluntary agencies.

People are in a dire struggle to find an affordable place to live, said Durow.

"The cost of living increases are astronomical and we desperately need a rent cap in our city. The homeless population has increased dramatically. People are continuously evicted, and landlords are refusing to give people reasonable leases. The city and the president keep telling people to go home, but home to where?"

For now, caseworkers are trying to get the word out about Road Home, and help people walk through the process.

Road Home appointments can take anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours, explained Hector-Harris. "We allow people to get all the time that they deserve. We're talking about real estate. We're talking about the largest dollar transaction that we ever make in our entire lives. People need to have time to seriously consider what their options are. The amount of time people need is exactly what they get. We try to be compassionate and respectful."

Zimmer said he regards the appointments as a plus. "They work on the basis of appointment only. I'm sorry but I'm one of those people that says I'm proud that they're doing that because they quit treating people like cattle and making them stand in line for hours."

He also believes the program's counselors have received high-quality training. "You're not going to be dealing with a different person throughout the process, so that's positive. I was a state bureaucrat for eight or nine years," he said. "And I was surprised at how good this program looks in design and approach. It's really much better than I thought we would do."

It's clear that people are going to eventually get recovery money from Road Home, agreed responders. "People in Louisiana are glad that there is a program in place for homeowners - both homeowners who were insured and non-insured homeowners," said Finger.

But response leaders should be careful about pushing the figure of $150,000 too prominently in announcements, cautioned Church World Service Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison Lura Cayton.

"I don't want people out there throwing out this $150,000 figure, which makes people think they're going to get $150,000. Most people aren't going to get anything close to $150,000," she said.

Finger agreed. "The $150,000 maximum grant will be reduced by homeowners insurance received, by FEMA mitigation funds, by flood insurance," she said. "And what we know is that once those amounts are deducted from even the maximum grant allowable that, taken together with the increased cost of labor and material through the Gulf Coast, the amounts received are likely to be insufficient to meet the actual rebuilding costs for most people."

Even the best program can't meet the vast needs in Louisiana, acknowledged responders.

"These are wounded people," concluded Zimmer. "It's going to be slow. There are going to be lots of complaints."

He urged homeowners to get their paperwork together - and he urged responders to continue to help them out as much as possible. "The more details and documentation you have relative to that, the quicker your process is going to be," he said.

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