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press clipping
New Orleanians wrestle bureaucracy, fear of abandonment
2/12/2006, 1:56 p.m. CT
By MICHELLE ROBERTS The Associated Press

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — For months, Earline Stelljes kept a brave face, scrubbing the black mold from her floor and eying the drywall sagging precariously from her bathroom ceiling.

Stelljes needs to repair her house, left damaged and without heat by Hurricane Katrina. But first, she needs a trailer to live in with her 12-year-old granddaughter. Polite as the folks at Federal Emergency Management Agency have been, no one can say when one might come.

When another neighbor recently got a trailer and she was left waiting — again — she lost it.

"I cried. I really cried," Stelljes said, standing on the front step of her home on a block full of travel trailers. "When I saw they were getting a trailer, I thought, 'What's wrong with me? Why me, God?'"

Nearly six months after Katrina hit, Stelljes and countless others who have returned are awash with frustration. They wait for trailers, for utility inspectors, for promised insurance checks. They negotiate intersections without working traffic lights. They grumble about mail delivery that is slow, at best.

The harsh reality of daily life here — set against a backdrop of reluctance in Washington to commit to the staggering costs of rebuilding — has led to a frightening sense of abandonment.

"We're going to be sort of forgotten," Stelljes said. "People seem to think we're up and running."

Residents sense the nation's attention has turned from their Katrina-sodden lives, back to the battlefields of Iraq, the newest Supreme Court justice, the Super Bowl.

The apocalyptic scenes of early September are gone. The amount of time devoted to Katrina's aftermath on nightly news casts has declined predictably, said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who studies weekday national news broadcasts.

Meanwhile, Stelljes said, "a lot of people's spirits are being broken."

FEMA — heavily criticized for its slow initial response and still a favorite cause for grousing — understands people are frustrated, said spokesman Butch Kinerney.

"It's a long slow road to recovery. There's no question about it," he said, noting the workload has been massive. The agency is providing 837,000 Louisiana families with housing assistance after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which struck in September.

Only about one-third of New Orleans' pre-Katrina residents have returned to the city, many crammed in hotels, relatives' homes or rentals. Even less-damaged suburbs, like Metairie, are filled with frustrated, struggling people.

Thousands of families are awaiting FEMA trailers, some of which are parked in lots waiting for officials to decide where they will be dispatched. Others have trailers but await utility connections.

Stelljes, a 59-year-old widow, called FEMA numerous times, recounting her story, waiting for her file to be located, hearing condolences from employees on the other end.

Still, no one could tell her when a trailer might arrive so work could begin on her three-bedroom house, which needs a new roof, flooring, heating unit and bathroom after three inches of water covered the floor and rain poured in through the hole in the roof.

"In order for me to tear out my bathroom, I have to have a bathroom to go to," says Stelljes, who is careful to note she's grateful to have a roof over her head at all — something many area residents have lost entirely.

Nearly 10,000 residents housed in FEMA-funded Louisiana hotels faced constantly changing check-out times, with deadlines set and then retracted because of court orders or policy changes, leading to confusion among residents and hotel managers.

"FEMA don't know how to make their minds up," said April Johnson, who was living in a New Orleans hotel while work was done on her Uptown home.

Even the most resourceful New Orleans residents say red tape strewn by overworked city inspectors and other local officials has slowed recovery efforts.

Ron Fisk, who owns a three-story office building on Canal Street, got electricity restored, began repair work on the ground floor once covered in two feet of water and found a new tenant to replace ones driven out by the storm.

But he wasn't able to finish the work for weeks — or get the new tenant in — because he was waiting for a city electrical inspector.

He called repeatedly to find out when someone might arrive; all he was told was he was on the list. Fisk finally decided to finish the work without the inspection, hoping a city policy change would clear him.

"I haven't been waiting on anybody to give me a hand. I've been waiting for people to get out of my way," said Fisk, who slipped into New Orleans two and a half weeks after the storm to begin salvaging his building.

The news out of Washington has compounded residents' frustration:

_President Bush opposes a bill to allow government buyout of some destroyed homes, a plan designed to help residents recover equity from their houses and avoid foreclosure on their mortgaged ruins. Many of the early rebuilding proposals were predicated on buyouts.

_The federal government has not committed to the costly demand that levees, which protect the low-lying city, be rebuilt to withstand a Category 5 hurricane — the most brutal kind. The existing system was largely expected to hold against a Category 3 storm, but Katrina, a strong Category 3 with winds at 125 mph, sent water through the flood walls and into neighborhoods.

Many residents and officials say rebuilding plans won't save the city without commitments on levee reinforcement, especially as another hurricane season approaches.

"They have to worry about making the levees safe," said Merrill Rye, a 65-year-old native of the city. "Forget about the rest. We'll do without."

_Congress approved $29 billion in aid for Louisiana and Mississippi before Christmas — but only after lawmakers from those states stamped their feet.

Congress has been reluctant to be diverted from plans for domestic tax cuts and funding for the Iraq war, said Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who told fellow senators she would prevent them from going home for the holidays if there was no action on the damaged levees.

Rebuilding from Katrina, Landrieu said, is "a tar baby."

"They want to just get rid of it," she said. "They can't."

_Bush's State of the Union address, which some local residents hoped would include plans for rebuilding their beleaguered city, focused heavily on Iraq. Only about 160 words of the 5,300 words the president uttered on Jan. 31 were about the Gulf Coast.

For all their frustration with government officials, most New Orleanians say they've been touched by the generosity of their fellow Americans. The American Red Cross' hurricane relief fund collected $2.1 billion, the most ever for a disaster.

Beyond the donations, countless volunteers have descended on the region — cleaning, providing medical care or handing out meals to overwhelmed families.

One group cut up Stelljes' 60-foot pecan tree, downed by the winds.

"I had never seen them before," she said. "I took a picture of them for my scrapbook."

Fisk, whose family evacuated to Hillside, N.J., still tears up months later when he recounts an encounter at a tiny pizza parlor there. A sign at the restaurant's counter said patrons had donated $1,265 for the victims of Hurricane Katrina — an amount matched by the owner even though no one had a connection to the Gulf Coast.

"The American people have hearts of gold," Fisk said.

But hearts of gold do not speed cash flow. Fisk managed to get some insurance money for repairs but waited months for his lender to process the checks. Money his insurance company sent him for his car, crushed by a falling tree, got lost in the mail; postal deliveries have been intermittent and slow since the storm.

This kind of frustration extends across all races, Fisk said.

"Black, white, yellow, brown," he said, "we're all in the midst of disaster."