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Give and take

Hurricane Katrina | Displaced residents of public housing are being well supplied by FEMA and others, but they are demanding more

Issue: "Stealth care," Sept. 16, 2006

BATON ROUGE, La. - On 62 acres of rural farmland on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, 436 white travel trailers sit in neat rows on gray gravel behind a chain-link fence near the town's mid-size airport. FEMA calls the trailer park "Renaissance Village," and the agency began moving displaced families in shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck last year.

Many of the families in Renaissance Village come from some of the hardest-hit areas of New Orleans, including the Ninth Ward, Lower Ninth Ward, and St. Bernard Parish. More than a year after Katrina drove the families from their homes, their neighborhoods lie in ruins, and a renaissance seems far away.

Wilbert Ross was one of the first evacuees to settle in the park after fleeing his flooded Ninth Ward home. Today Ross lives in a tiny trailer with a 20-year-old son, a 16-year-old daughter, her 19-month-old baby, and an 18-year-old daughter who's expecting a baby this month.

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The trailer is crowded, but Ross doesn't spend much time inside. As president of an advisory council for residents, Ross spends his days walking the hot, shadeless expanse of the village, finding out what residents need and telling them what help is available.

For those who want help there's plenty of it: Catholic Charities has a full-time mobile unit in the park, providing social services, clothing, school supplies, counseling, and "just about anything you might need," Ross told WORLD. Doctors volunteer on a mobile medical unit that provides free health care.

The Louisiana Department of Labor operates a satellite office in the park five days a week, offering job-placement services. A local YWCA offers free child care for working families. FEMA funds job-training courses for residents who need help developing skills, and the agency underwrites public transportation costs.

The park's residents live in the FEMA trailers free of charge for at least 18 months, paying only for propane. FEMA picks up the tab for utilities and operates free laundromats throughout the park. Residents may also collect any additional government benefits for which they're eligible, including food stamps, disability, and unemployment.

But despite the glut of federal and private help, Ross insists the government owes residents more. On a sweltering afternoon under a party tent that serves as the only central meeting place in the park, Ross talks about efforts to demand more cash for displaced residents and to sue government agencies. "The government should give us what by right we deserve," says Ross. "So far they ain't nowhere near it."

Congress recently approved a grant program to give homeowners up to $150,000 to rebuild their homes in the Gulf Coast area. FEMA has doled out more than $4.2 billion in housing assistance that includes rebuilding homes and replacing items lost in the storm. The agency has spent another $1.9 billion to meet other needs of Gulf Coast residents, including medical and transportation expenses.

Ross wants to see the federal government give an additional $40,000 to renters who lost household items in the hardest-hit areas. He points out that victims of 9/11 and other disasters have received large sums of federal aid: "We want to know why we haven't gotten anything."

While schoolchildren file off buses at the park's gate wearing neat uniforms and toting backpacks provided by a local nonprofit group, Ross leans into car windows, telling residents to come to a community meeting that night in the tent. "We're going to talk about the lawsuit," he says.

A few hours later as the sun goes down, about 50 residents crowd into the tent, sitting on folding chairs and wobbly benches while loud floor fans swirl hot, sticky air. Residents slowly fan themselves and fight oppressive mosquitoes while Ross hands out agendas and introduces the first guest.

Margo Fleet is a Louisiana attorney managing a class-action lawsuit against the levee boards and the Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of residents of heavily flooded areas. "I'm here to make sure you know your rights," she tells the small crowd over a garbled PA system.

Fleet sums up the lawsuit and emphasizes there are no guarantees. But she encourages residents to fill out the forms she's brought. When she comes to the form's section on personal injury, Fleet explains this includes any mental anguish caused by the flooding. "I'm not going to tell you how much to put down in this category," she says, "but I will say this: Don't underestimate."

When Fleet has finished speaking, a dozen residents swarm a folding table in the far corner, gathering the legal forms and shuffling out of the tent.

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