Alabama Joins 3 other Katrina-stricken States to Update House Panel

By | May 12, 2008

An Alabama official estimates the state needs between $100 million to $110 million – double its allocated federal aid – to address persistent housing needs in 22 counties declared disaster areas from Hurricane Katrina.

“That would do it for housing,” Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs Director Bill Johnson said May 9.

Officials from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas updated members of Congress on their use of federal Katrina relief funds at a May 8 hearing of the U.S. House Financial Services Subcommittee on Housing and Community Opportunity.

Johnson’s written statement to the subcommittee was the first public acknowledgment of the additional need, which he said partly was prompted by finding more storm victims seeking assistance. The committee took no action on additional funding, he said.

Louisiana officials said their ultimate housing needs are still difficult to determine, while Mississippi officials said they have covered most of their needs.

“Assessing the true demand for housing in the wake of this unprecedented disaster is nearly impossible. We still have tens of thousands of citizens displaced throughout the country and gauging their intent or ability to return home is a guess at best,” David J. Bowman, director of research and special projects for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, told the committee.

Based on active residential postal addresses, Bowman said Orleans parish is still down by about 129,000 individuals. Also, there are about 34,000 individuals receiving federal assistance that is due to expire in March 2009.

“We currently have approximately 18,600 Louisiana households still living in FEMA trailers. The bulk of these are trailers on private sites with over two-thirds of these being current or former homeowners,” Bowman told the committee.

Mississippi received nearly $5.5 billion in disaster aid, with about 72 percent of it going for housing recovery, according to Jack Norris, the director of Mississippi’s recovery effort.

Norris told the committee that much of the federal assistance needed to address the projects and policies identified in state and local plans has been procured. He said the state now finds itself “fully in the implementation and closeout phase of recovery.”

Since Katrina, Alabama has received about $95.6 million in disaster aid. Johnson said more than three-quarters of that disaster grant remains unspent because of the time needed to comply with federal regulations. But Johnson said the total amount is designated for recovery projects.

Bayou La Batre, on the Mobile County coast, faces the additional cost of complying with federal regulations for rehabilitated homes.

“Two years after the storm, FEMA conducted an inspection and is now requiring elevation of 100 homes rehabilitated by volunteer groups at an estimated cost to the city of $6 million,” Johnson said in his committee statement.

In a phone interview, Johnson told The Associated Press he doubts that $6 million will come from FEMA.

In Mobile and Baldwin counties on the coast, over 45,000 occupied housing units suffered minor damage from Katrina, over 3,000 had major damage and about 400 had severe damage.

In Bayou La Batre, 500 of the 769 houses were badly damaged or completely destroyed. So far, volunteers have repaired 250 bayou homes, the city rebuilt 40 and in the next few months, 80 families still in FEMA trailers will move to new housing.

“As we near the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the true and full extent of need is still unknown,” Johnson stated. “Part of the problem results from the reluctance of federal agencies to share data, probably due to privacy concerns. Another is false claims and contrived needs.”

Obtaining more funding is uncertain, however.

Johnson said he has already discussed the need with several members of the state’s congressional delegation, but the only immediate legislative way to obtain it would be adding it to an emergency defense spending bill for war needs.

Johnson and Montgomery lawyer Craig Baab, who works on Katrina issues with the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, Inc., a nonpartisan legal policy center, were among a dozen witnesses to testify.

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