Economy

Compounding Housing Burdens in Coastal Alabama: Katrina and the BP Oil Spill

The hundreds of Alabama households affected by Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill cannot afford to go another year living in less than dignified conditions.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina ripped and surged through the Gulf Coast, hundreds of families in Alabama whose homes were damaged or destroyed are still searching for solutions to repair and rebuild. Take the home of Linda, age 58, and Sherley Goleman, age 74, who live in the unincorporated town of Coden, along the coast of Alabama. While they’ve been able to scrap and patch their Katrina-ravaged house together as best as they can, the foundation beneath their floors in some parts are faulty, and the house needs to be elevated to withstand even a minor flood. A malodorous smell persists in the house, the legacy of mold. The walls have turned a dingy yellow to match the stench. 
 
The Golemans would like to rehabilitate their home into something more livable, but federal disaster assistance for Mobile County has run out. Repairs are an expense they’ll have to pocket, but Sherley has been out of work as an oyster catcher all summer due to the BP oil spill. The Golemans are just one example of hundreds of families in coastal Mobile County who’ve been negatively affected by both Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. 
 
Not far from Coden, in neighboring city Bayou La Batre, African Americans living in Snows Quarters, a historic black community, have been denied federal assistance to elevate their houses, leaving them vulnerable to the next disaster. Meanwhile, the Trinity Gardens neighborhood in Mobile, was completely overlooked by disaster recovery Community Block Grant Funds (CDBG),leaving advocates there to rely on churches, charities and small community development corporations like the Bay Area Women’s Coalition to repair its residents’ houses. 
 
And then there’s Belinda Wilkerson, who lives with her disabled son in a Safe Harbor cottage that was built only last year as part of the FEMA Alternative Housing Pilot Program. The modular homes are a far cry from what Wilkerson is used to living in, and she says she and her family doesn’t feel safe -- her son who suffers from schizophrenia has been physically attacked numerous times by people living in the housing development. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official who came to visit the area recently said that this is not what the program’s architects in federal government meant it to be. 
 
An accurate picture of unmet disaster housing needs in Alabama remains elusive. The Equity and Inclusion Campaign, and the Gulf Coast advocates we serve, have been regularly presented with conflicting or inconsistent data from local, county and state officials about how many households have been helped, and how many continue to go without help. Government officials at every level have had to make difficult decisions about how to use extremely limited resources. Consequently, many families today live like the Golemans, the Wilkersons and dozens of families in Snows Quarters, in less than adequate housing circumstances.   

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 3,177 housing units in Mobile County sustained major or severe damage from Hurricane Katrina. According to available data sets, 1,179 individuals in Mobile County applied for disaster recovery Community Disaster Block Grants (CDBG) rebuilding assistance. Of those, only 301 homeownershave been or will be served. At least 359 homeowners qualified for funding, but won't receive it because they missed an application window that was open for a short period of time by design.  Due to depleted federal funding, at least 346 qualified, eligible homeowners will not receive assistance. Lastly, the program did not serve renters, even though, as of 2006, the total unmet demand for rental units in Mobile County numbered 26,002 units

According to a cursory survey funded by the Mobile County Commission, 552 of the people who applied for assistance – almost half of them -- have disabilities; in addition, at least 166 of these households are headed by an elderly person . As the needs of the disabled go unmet, other problems have arisen in the five years since Katrina that have compounded the overall housing burdens:  

  • The financial recession and foreclosure crisis that began in 2008 has cast gloom over the prospects for greater housing security in coastal Alabama.
  • The BP oil spill has not only endangered the health of these coastal Alabama families, but also livelihoods and housing security of the many families who make their living in the seafood industry.
  • Homelessness in the counties of Mobile and Baldwin currently are experiencing their largest numbers of the past five years, exceeding even steep inclines in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The Equity and Inclusion Campaign, along with its partners in the Bay Area Women's Coalition, South Bay Communities Alliance, the Mobile Fair Housing Center and Operation Home Care, hosted a meeting with HUD in September. During that visit, a HUD official heard from dozens of families whose housing needs continue to go unmet and have in fact worsened.  

The folks of Mobile and coastal Alabama have been overlooked by the kind of Katrina media coverage that is annually showered upon New Orleans on the last week of August. Most of the families in coastal Alabama are or were employed by seafood industries that have been decimated by the oil and dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico. 

HUD officials have admitted that the amount of Congressional funds allocated to the Gulf Coast, and particularly to Alabama, were woefully inadequate. The hundreds of Alabama households affected by Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill cannot afford to go another year living in less than dignified conditions. Advocates across Alabama call on the Obama Administration to work with Alabamans to create solutions, and together make these families whole again.  

Adren Wilson is Executive Director of Equity and Inclusion Campaign.