4 Years After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Battles Fraud in Rebuilding City

Locations in this article:  New Orleans, LA

Bourbon Street
For the past four years, Courtney Crowder has spent spring break volunteering in New Orleans. Read on for her reports from the field …

It has been four years since Hurricane Katrina, and federal rebuilding money is just starting to trickle in for homeowners who lost everything.

The majority of homes that were destroyed happened to be located in the poorer neighborhoods of New Orleans, with the Lower Ninth Ward being the poster parish for devastation.

Residents have now spent years living in FEMA trailers, the homes of friends nearby, or as displaced residents looking for an opportunity to rebuild their houses and get back to the city they call home.

Read Courtney’s previous report from New Orleans, Volunteering in New Orleans: Wading the Wetlands With Common Ground Relief.

Today, we worked on the house of Geraldine and her brother Robert. Their home was flooded with 12 feet of water and was rendered uninhabitable. After filling out hundreds of documents to apply for federal aid money, the elderly siblings received a check—three and a half years after they lost everything.

Living paycheck to paycheck their whole lives, their federal aid check was more than they had ever received at once. But they didn’t know how to spend it, nor were they prepared to protect themselves …

A man came to Geraldine and told her that if she signed over 90 percent of her federal aid check to him, he would build her a new house in 60 days. He took her money and skipped town.

Damaged homeGeraldine is not in the minority. Fraudulent contractors tend to prey on the elderly or poor, sometimes even writing up official contracts with tricky wording, leaving them totally guilt-free for their crime. Weak laws in Louisiana for contractor fraud often mean that perpetrators can easily get away with stealing peoples’ chances for a new life.

Thankfully, Geraldine was able to use the rest of her federal money to hire a construction firm which did as much as they could and then connected her with Common Ground to finish the rest of the house with volunteer labor.

Besides providing labor, Common Ground has opened a legal advisory clinic to combat contractor fraud, helping people get their lives back in order.

Looking over the progress my small group of nine has made in a day—dry-walling half of an entire floor—Geraldine says that the amount of people who have helped her to move back into her childhood home makes her believe in the power of the human spirit.

For us, it was Geraldine’s perseverance in returning to the city she loves that made us believe as well.

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By Courtney Crowder for PeterGreenberg.com