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GULFPORT, Miss.—International humanitarian agency Oxfam America raised concern today that out of the $3 billion allocated for rebuilding homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, fewer than 30 households saw any of that assistance this week when the first round of checks went out. Oxfam America called on Mississippi state officials to immediately change course and work with community leaders to develop a comprehensive housing recovery plan by the end of September that meets the needs of the region’s poorest residents.
The $3 billion homeowner assistance plan is part of the federal rebuilding program designed to address the massive housing crisis now sweeping the Gulf Coast as a result of Katrina. Mississippi waived many of the program requirements—including rules that would have guaranteed low-income households a fair share of the assistance—so that homeowners could get the aid faster.
“In a state where 60,000 homes suffered severe damage, only around 30,000 households were eligible for the initial program, and now less than three dozen checks have gone out,” said Oxfam America’s Minor Sinclair, director of its US regional programs. “Very few families will have made any progress by Katrina’s first anniversary. People are stranded in gutted-out houses, overcrowded trailers, and slipping deeper into debt, with no real help in sight.”
Even if distribution dramatically accelerates, people have already waited a whole year. Further, tens of thousands of homeowners and renters are not eligible – and there is still no plan to get them back into homes. At a town hall meeting organized by Oxfam America and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and attended by more than 450 people in Gulfport Saturday night, residents repeatedly questioned government policies that ignored their dire living conditions while sitting on a multi-billion dollar aid package.
“As early as December, community groups raised questions about who would be eligible for the homeowner’s assistance and six months ago, Oxfam America raised that red flag in a report examining the state recovery plans,” said Sinclair. “When the governor’s office asked for input, it got swamped with letters from residents lodging their concerns. That fear has now become a reality.”
A host of problems have contributed to the limited reach of this first phase of the program, including mixed messages from government agencies, confusion about who was eligible for funding, and cumbersome paperwork. But these hurdles are no excuse for keeping tens of thousands of hurricane survivors in limbo.
“One year after Katrina, affordable housing has been completely neglected. The state sacrificed equity for expediency, and now Mississippi has neither,” said Mississippi Center for Justice’s Reilly Morse, referencing numbers cited by a Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) spokesperson in a Los Angeles Times story. The spokesperson said about two dozen checks have been sent to households on the eve of the one-year anniversary. “The MDA must accelerate phase two of assistance if they want to deliver any help to people by Christmas.”