The stories of failed post-Katrina housing recovery in Alabama are not hard to find. Grandparents are stuck in homes with rotting roofs, families who had to fight their way into FEMA trailers but got sick inside every one they were given. Families who've lost their homes have also lost their livelihoods indefinitely because of the BP oil spill.
Seven years on and multiple disasters later, many in Alabama whose homes were ruined by Hurricane Katrina have been forgotten by the federal government, or passed over by charities for other more pressing disasters, or dismissed by news outlets that focus only on New Orleans.
Congressional funds for Gulf Coast recovery were already inadequate, but it has never made it out to parts of Alabama. Trinity Gardens, a poor municipality on the north side of Mobile, is a standout example. Around 1,200 families there filed for FEMA funds and were accepted by the federal program--until it ran out of money, said Leevones Dubose, who's the director of the Bay Area Women's Coalition.
"They fixed about 400, and left about 800 families without no kind of support whatsoever," Dubose explained.
Dubose said she's counted 40 families in Trinity Gardens who are living with plastic tarps flapping over their roofs right now, because they were turned down for federal aid.
The problem for many in the poorest neighborhoods was that people lived in homes that were already old; FEMA inspectors told people they didn't qualify for recovery money if their homes were already in bad shape to begin with.
"Just because people were denied does not mean their problem does not exist," Dubose said. "We got mold, mildew, a lot of houses are vacant. Not because of BP, not because of foreclosures, but because of Hurricane Katrina."
Groups like the Equity and Inclusion Campaign are working to raise awareness and fight to collect accurate data. Their research shows that housing recovery has passed over the people who needed it the most: the elderly and the poor, those with disabilities.
According to the EIC, Mobile and Baldwin Counties are recording their largest homeless population in five years, numbers that surpass even the sharp post-Katrina increases.
It is a story where there is no brand new news: there is just the ongoing fight on the part of local groups to stay in the public eye, to let the government know there are families who continue to live in homes damaged by Katrina.
Dubose said the Bay Area Women Coalition has tried everything. Dubose rattled off the names of congressmen and senators who've toured Trinity Gardens and promised help was just around the corner. "Senators Shelby and Sessions were invited," Dubose recalls. "Gubernatoral candidates come out and see the conditions out here. Joe Boehner, our congressman, and Artur Davis, they've been here to my office and I've taken them on tour to show them the houses that have fallen in." Groups have also delegations to D.C. to lobby Congress. Still, help has never arrived.
Trinity Gardens is taking matters into its own hands. Residents have organized a co-op to try to rebuild their own homes. So many people are out of work because of the BP oil spill and there isn't any extra cash flowing through the neighborhood. But there's plenty of will for getting homes fixed up, and even a couple handy roofers and plumbers in the area. The co-op had its first meeting this May, and even though only 40 people were invited, more than 80 people turned up. Dubose says they've got a couple committed volunteer contractors who come by after hours and are slowly making their way around the neighborhood to assess damage and see how much a self-funded rebuilding project will cost.
Work is slow; materials are expensive and everyone is volunteering their time. The co-op desperately needs building materials and more than just the $50 membership dues from families who are already digging in deep to pay that much. The co-op is hoping to get started fixing their first house in a few weeks. They haven't given up on hearing back from the federal government, but they can't wait anymore.