SAN FRANCISCO - A program to help homeowners cope with the destruction of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is mired in red tape, with local community groups left out in the cold, a leading international aid organization charged this week.
The international development group Oxfam said the benefits of Louisiana's "Road Home" program will bypass the neediest communities if non-profit and faith-based groups aren't assigned a significant role in its distribution.
More than 200,000 homes and rental units were severely damaged or destroyed as a result of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, leaving 780,000 Louisiana residents displaced. In response, the state created the Road Home program, which reimburses as much as $150,000 to qualified homeowners and small rental unit landlords for their uninsured, uncompensated damages.
In June, the government of Louisiana granted the global consultancy firm ICF International an $87 million contract to run the program.
Community groups say since then, very few people have been compensated for their loss.
"For 12 long months, it's been the non-profit and faith-based groups that have helped the poor folks across coastal Louisiana, not the federal or state government," said Davida Finger, Louisiana state coordinator for Oxfam's Gulf Coast Emergency Program.
"Through volunteer labor and donated materials, non-profit and faith-based groups have led the rebirth of the coast," added Finger in a statement Friday. "In a federal and state response known best for what didn't work, why on earth would you ignore the one part that did?"
Mike Byrne, who coordinates the Road Home program for Virginia-based ICF International told OneWorld his company was "ramping up" and that benefits would be distributed faster soon.
Byrne said it was inevitable that a lot of paperwork would be involved in a program that gives up to $150,000 in compensation to affected families.
"You're talking about real estate here," he said. "Someone has to go out and look at the damage and assess what level of compensation is appropriate. Then, the family has to decide if they want to rebuild or relocate. It can be a very emotional decision and we give them time."
But time is one thing residents have had enough of, according to Peg Case of the Houma, Louisiana-based Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition, which has been helping displaced families fill out the paperwork necessary to attain government compensation.
"Look at the families who were dealing with FEMA," she said, referring to the much maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency. "People are still waiting in lines to get trailers."
"How long will it take to go through all of this?" asked Pastor Vien Nguyen, of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church in eastern New Orleans. "My people and all people affected by Katrina and Rita have filled out so many forms already."
Nguyen said there's been virtually no outreach by the government or ICF to his congregation. Like other community leaders, he hopes difficulties associated with getting FEMA assistance do not repeat themselves with the Road Home program.
"I have a member of my congregation who is 72 years old," Father Nguyen told OneWorld. "Finally after a year FEMA acknowledged her existence but asked for proof of residence. The apartment manager wrote a letter certifying that she lived at that address, but that still didn't satisfy them. They wanted a telephone record or another bill. This woman is 72 years old. She's suffered some illnesses and she's very forgetful. This is more than a year ago and still they're going through all of this."
"My concern is that its going to be same thing (with the Road Home program)," Nguyen said. "It's going to be ten years from now and we're still going to be filling out paperwork."
Nguyen is also concerned because the state and federal governments have not provided translators to help people in his congregation.
"Someone (from the church) always has to go to translate," he said. "My people can go to any of their locations in the city, but will they have someone who speaks both languages? I don't know. My understanding is they don't have it yet."
As with the rest of the program, ICF's Byrne said his company is still "ramping up" its ability to handle multiple languages. He said the company's automated telephone hotline already works in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and French.
"We're actively recruiting to get more (translators)," he said, "as well as people to help those with low literacy levels."
"Let's continue this conversation in a couple of months," Byrne said. "We're working with two key words--we want to have a compassionate but efficient program. We don't have people standing in line. We make appointments, and as a result of that we've had 3,000 interviews and we're starting to see success."
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