Katrina + 10

The new normal Programs help Katrina survivors rebuild homes, lives



Scott Hughes of Kiln drives past a row of MEMA cottages Monday at the cottage staging facility on Landon Road in Gulfport in August 2008.
Scott Hughes of Kiln drives past a row of MEMA cottages Monday at the cottage staging facility on Landon Road in Gulfport in August 2008. SUN HERALD

Mimi Sherrouse looks through the shatter-proof south windows of her elevated home onto what she calls "the moors," a three-block stretch of land the wild has partially reclaimed.

Before Katrina, this was a neighborhood filled with houses, landscaped lawns, Live oaks and enormous old pine trees. For Sherrouse, it was home.

The 90-year-old was determined to return after the storm took her house near the beach and most everything else in Waveland, the bull's eye for Katrina.

Sherrouse is back, but it took some doing to get here. Her housing experiences after the storm ran the gamut: from a travel-trailer to a Mississippi cottage, then an apartment while her home was rebuilt, finished in time for Christmas 2010.

"It was extremely difficult," said her daughter, Vicki Sherrouse, who navigated the recovery maze to cobble together funding needed for reconstruction. "In retrospect, I can see how it followed a path that I couldn't have engineered." In retrospect, she believes God designed their homecoming, with a big assist from the volunteers who poured onto the Coast to help rebuild.

No recovery playbook

The federal government poured more than $3.2 billion into permanent housing for Mississippians, according to the Mississippi Development Authority, which managed the money Congress appropriated after Katrina heavily damaged or destroyed more than 60,000 homes.

"When we received the money, there was no playbook," said Jon Mabry, former chief operating officer for MDA's disaster-recovery division, "so you had to start with a blank sheet of paper and design programs."

Homeowners with insurance were the first helped. They received a total of $1.4 billion to rebuild. Sherrouse, who had no insurance on the home she'd inherited from her parents, received grants in the second round of funding, which provided almost $381 million to homeowners who didn't qualify in the first round.

Mabry said the state wound up with a total of 10 housing programs, including long-term workforce housing developers built, rental restoration and public housing.

Some of the programs were slow to be designed and started. All included federal regulations that were difficult to navigate.

The Sherrouses remember having to make sure their property contained no sacred burial grounds.

Also built into the programs were requirements meant to lessen damage from the next disaster, such as elevating above flood levels and carrying flood insurance on the new homes.

Housing improves

Community groups had to advocate for residents left out of initial housing-recovery programs. The second phase of homeowner grants assisted some of these residents, as did grants to nonprofits for housing and one final housing-recovery program, the Neighborhood Home Program.

"What we saw was an enormous effort, an enormous amount of money thrown at homeowners, quickly, out of the box," said Reilly Morse, a Coast attorney at the Mississippi Center for Justice who monitored the programs and pushed the state to assist those with the fewest resources.

"For some, it took a hard fight for them to even be recognized. There are people, this month, who are getting Katrina damage repaired or reconstructed. I see the reports. I see the pictures. I know who they are. Largely, these are the very last to be processed under the Neighborhood Home Program."

Mabry is proud of the fact Mississippi kept administrative costs very low for its programs and had only 1/10th of a percent confirmed fraud. "We've gone through dozens and dozens of audits," he said, "with no significant findings."

Morse and Mabry agree South Mississippi's housing stock is in better shape than it was before the storm. "It would almost make you cry to look at the living conditions of some of the people in Mississippi" before Katrina, Mabry said. "I believe, in the end, what we can say is we put people in better spots than what they were in as far as living conditions."

Temporary fixes

In many cases, it took more than one program to put people back in homes. Such was the magnitude of damage in Waveland that Mimi Sherrouse's street was not cleared of debris until six months after Katrina.

After nine months, daughter Vicki Sherrouse finally managed to get a travel-trailer placed on her mother's lot. Next, Mimi Sherrouse received a Mississippi cottage, the shotgun modular homes designed after Katrina as a more permanent alternative to FEMA trailers.

Marsha Barbour, Gov. Haley Barbour's wife, handed Sherrouse the key to her cottage. The Sherrouses thought about incorporating the cottage into an elevated structure that would serve as a permanent home, but Waveland was one of a number of communities that decided the cottages had to go. Although they were modular homes, some communities classified the small cottages as mobile homes because they arrived on wheels.

Like some Coast residents, Sherrouse was the victim of a builder who was unscrupulous, incompetent or both. She was out $10,000 of her recovery money with only rebar, deep holes gouged into her lot for pilings, some lumber framing and building plans one engineer reviewed and described as "cartoons."

Finally, a squirrel

The Hancock County Resource Center came through for Sherrouse with a forgivable loan provided through the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. Center president Rhonda Rhodes said the funding was private and easier to manage because it came with fewer strings attached.

A network of nonprofits and volunteers helped the resource center, which at one time had a list of 2,000 clients in need of housing assistance. Rhodes said Katrina repairs and reconstruction were finally finished in 2014.

"We kind of shut the door on Katrina, and it was a good thing," she said. "It was a good thing to say, 'This is not about Katrina anymore." The organization, and others like it, were created to respond to Katrina and are now in Coast communities to assist with other housing needs.

On their little corner off the beach in Waveland, the Sherrouses enjoy their elevated home. They don't have neighbors like they used to. The trees are just beginning to grow to a height they can see from their windows. There are more empty lots than houses on the beach.

But for the first time, they said, they recently saw a squirrel in one of their trees.

It's the new normal, they say.