March 13, 2006

New Orleans Residents Face Painful Housing Dilemma

By Jeffrey Jones

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - A new funding plan aimed at getting New Orleans' shattered neighborhoods back on their feet has so far done little to ease residents' painful dilemma of rebuilding or moving out, half a year after the disaster.

In hard-hit middle-class neighborhoods close to Lake Pontchartrain on the north side of the historic city, homeowners say they are confounded by confusing signals from all levels of government about what it will take to rebuild.

To the east in the low-income Lower Ninth Ward, much of which was turned into a debris field when a levee burst after the August 29 storm, residents worry it will take a generation before a vibrant community re-emerges.

Add to that questions about whether jobs exist, insurance money is available and if Washington will make multibillion-dollar improvements to levees, and the quandary deepens for residents struggling to recover from America's worst natural disaster.

"There's so much misinformation out there that people just don't know what to do," said Robert Jenkins, a 44-year-old lawyer whose father is trying to rebuild in the Gentilly Woods area.

"There are people who have money who could start rebuilding but they're worried about what's going to happen."

A new state program that would provide homeowners with up to $150,000 to rebuild has provided some hope, but residents say they are uncertain who will qualify for assistance and whether neighborhoods deemed unviable will be allowed to rebuild.

That is an emotional issue leading up to the April 22 mayoral election. Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission recommended that areas that are too damaged or at risk for more flooding should be turned into parks, but most of the main mayoral candidates, including Nagin, are not backing that approach.


Even before Katrina damaged 150,000 homes, the economy sputtered with a population of under half a million, said Loyola University political scientist Roger White. So far, about 200,000 residents have returned.

"If we're asking for federal dollars, money to come in and get a neighborhood back on its feet, taxpayers will ask -- just as we would if we were asked to pay for somebody else's rebuilding -- is the neighborhood viable?" White said.

"I don't think that's an invalid question."

Susan Herring wants to stay and rebuild in the Lakeview area, where her home is gutted to the studs to prevent mold from spreading. Speaking outside the borrowed trailer in which she now lives, she said her husband, James, wants out.

Homes here are marked by brown rings about 8 feet up the siding, a reminder of how high the water rose. On a weekday, streets are still nearly devoid of residents.

"It's like the wild, open West -- a ghost town," said Herring, 61. "That's the feeling you get, especially at night because it's so dark."

She believes the area will revive, but said many neighbors are waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to issue maps pinpointing flood plains to determine whether their houses will need to be raised. Those are expected in May.

Jenkins, the lawyer, said he had advised his father and his neighbors to press ahead with their rebuilding and trust that no court would rule against their property rights.

"I've been telling my dad and everybody else, 'Build your house. This is not a country where they can take your property'," he said.

For some, like Joe Harrison, the choice is harder. He must decide if he will tear down the home his father bought in 1960 in the Lower Ninth Ward, which is nearly uninhabitable.

The 53-year-old handyman pointed to wrecked houses in all directions, some just piles of twisted lumber, and recited names of longtime neighbors who helped shape his life.

"There's a lot of history in this house," he said. "My dad used to work on the river and we got put out of our house when I was about seven years old. He said that would never happen again and he bought this house."