Rural Alabama Homeowners Still Waiting for Katrina Housing Aid
Two years after Hurricane Katrina struck, more than 1,000 storm victims in parts of Alabama’s rural south Mobile County are still waiting for housing funds to get out of trailers or damaged, patched-over homes.
It’s apparent that not enough federal housing funds have been approved for these Katrina victims – and that word has not reached some that aid is even available.
As homes and businesses destroyed by the hurricane are slowly replaced in hard-hit Bayou La Batre, storm victims in other coastal communities are still in FEMA trailers anguishing over their future.
Under pressure from community activists upset over the long delay, Mobile County officials recently agreed to conduct an in-depth assessment of storm victims’ housing needs.
Tammy Collier of Alabama Port, near Dauphin Island, won’t be hard to locate. She’s been in a housing crisis since Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005.
She lives in a cramped FEMA trailer with her boyfriend, David Lilley, and their four teenagers.
Collier, 37, said she tends a flower garden outside the trailer on doctor’s orders to calm the stress that contributed to her heart attack after Katrina’s floodwaters claimed the family’s large mobile home parked on a piney lot.
The couple spent a FEMA grant to repair a small wooden house on their property so they could store their possessions until they recover, she said.
Collier said she’s on a waiting list for a special Community Development Block Grant from the federal government to possibly make the storage house livable or obtain a mobile home.
“We’re No. 936 on the grant list,” she said in an interview Thursday.
She said the family will have to live in the FEMA trailer until she gets housing.
“We can’t live in a tent. We did that after the storm. Everything is wait-and-see, wait-and-see. It’s been that way since the storm,” she said.
Some 1,167 names are on a county list for housing relief, with current funds inadequate to help all of them, though many still live in unsafe, unhealthy conditions, community leaders said.
Nancy McCall said her home in Coden is nearly repaired, but she’s still in a FEMA trailer because the septic system for the house must be repaired.
McCall said she’s weary of “going to meetings” about the federal housing aid.
“People are giving up on it,” she said Friday.
Bayou La Batre officials received housing grants under a separate allocation and have moved ahead with construction projects. That’s created an impression among the city’s neighbors that politics have influenced who is getting the biggest share of the housing relief.
However, officials say the separate programs have different timetables to deliver the aid.
In Coden, community activist Jim Fuller, a real estate developer who also lost his home to Katrina, has helped keep the spotlight on those needing help.
Fuller contends the low-income residents, many of them toiling in the seafood and fishing industry, suffered some of the worst damage from Katrina and should have been given priority for housing aid.
Restaurant worker Barbara Goins of Coden, who lives with her 22-year-old son, his girlfriend and their baby, said the house has a hole in the roof from Katrina. A tarp placed on the roof after the storm has decayed.
But she’s living with it. When the roof leaks, her son covers the hole with tar paper. She said Thursday she was unaware any housing grants were available.
“How do you go about getting one?” she asked.
As president of the South Bay Communities Alliance, which meets in a county-owned building in Coden, Fuller contends the needs of unincorporated areas have been neglected in the competition for housing dollars.
By his estimate, some 400 families are still in FEMA trailers and many more are doubled-up in single-family homes.
County officials depend on a housing committee appointed to review the housing grant applicants, but two years after Katrina no homeowner in the county – outside Bayou La Batre – has yet received the first round of housing aid under the program.
Bayou La Batre so far has approved 31 applications for homes. About 45 homes will be built in the city with $7 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and another 120 with a $16 million FEMA grant, program administrator Janey Galbraith said.
The federal checks, when issued, will go to contractors to build the replacement housing – rehabilitated or new.
No timetable for the distribution has been released, however.
Gov. Bob Riley this week announced a second round of Katrina housing grants – sending $7.4 million to Mobile County, which got $10 million in the first round.
Statewide, Alabama has received $91 million in Community Development Block Grants for Katrina – not all of it for housing, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs said.
And while there’s been no formal request for additional funding from HUD, state officials said they would ask for more if it becomes available, citing the demand for housing.
Mobile County hired Montgomery-based Roth McHugh & Associates LLC to handle the grants. The firm’s grant consultant, Annette McGrady, said the individual grants are capped at $85,000. Only about 200 of the 1,167 applicants are covered by the first-round $10 million grant, she said.
“We’re no longer taking applications. That process has been suspended,” she said.
McGrady said the average claim is expected to be about $35,000 to $40,000. The jobs are mainly rehabilitating structures. She said about 10 contractors already are on a list to be considered for the work.
A decision on spending the second grant – $7.4 million – hasn’t been made, she said.
“They may decide to continue with applicants. We haven’t had an opportunity to meet with Mobile County,” McGrady said.
The county’s housing committee, meanwhile, will begin reviewing applicants for assistance this month.
Once approved, there’s more red tape, including property and damage appraisals. County officials also want to make sure the grants are distributed in a fair and impartial manner.
“We have to worry about the legal implications when we’re helping somebody,” said Minh Le, a housing committee member and spokesman for Boat People SOS, Inc., representing the large Asian-American community in the Bayou La Batre area.
Le said the preliminary work has been completed and he expects aid to the unincorporated area will be available soon.
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AP reporter Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., contributed to this report.