NEW ORLEANS – More than 16 months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced an unprecedented exodus from the Louisiana Gulf Coast, tens of thousands of homeowners have decided not to rebuild or have yet to make up their minds, an Associated Press analysis found.
The AP looked at applications to the federally funded Louisiana Road Home program, which dispenses up to $150,000 per homeowner to rebuild or sell out to the state. Nearly 98,000 people have applied so far.
Two-thirds of all applicants said they want to rebuild their damaged properties, while more than a quarter have indicated they want out or can't decide what to do.
But in dozens of towns and neighborhoods, particularly those closest to the coast, the percentages of homeowners on the fence or on the way out are higher than average, with as many as two out of three homeowners not committed to rebuilding. The areas, 31 ZIP codes in all, include several heavily damaged New Orleans neighborhoods such as Lakeview and the Ninth Ward.
Michael Kurth, a McNeese State University economics professor who has done research for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said he is not surprised.
"With the scale of destruction that occurred in those coastal areas, it wasn't a matter of `Let's return in a month or in two months,'" Kurth said. "In a lot of cases, you couldn't go back to what was there before. It's just not there."
Homeowners who remain undecided could still rebuild their destroyed homes. But by now, many are resettled in new homes, schools and jobs. Louisiana demographer Elliott Stonecipher said it is safe to assume that those who were going to commit themselves to rebuilding would have done so by now.
As many as 123,000 homeowners may be eligible for Louisiana Road Home aid. The program dispenses grants not only to rebuild damaged homes, but also to fortify undamaged ones by raising them off the ground or installing hurricane shutters.
Applicants must indicate whether they want to rebuild; sell and move in-state; sell and leave the state; or are undecided. Thousands of homeowners can still apply for assistance, and those who have already applied can change their minds on whether to rebuild or leave.
"The folks in south Louisiana whose houses were flooded by Katrina and Rita are necessarily going to be a little gun-shy," LRA executive director Andy Kopplin said. "There are some areas that are more vulnerable than others."
In Arabi, Chalmette and Meraux — all in hard-hit St. Bernard Parish, downriver from New Orleans — roughly two-thirds of applicants want to move out or are still uncertain about whether to rebuild.
"My old neighbors won't be back. She went to Covington. This one went to Tennessee," said Gerald Perry, a 59-year-old Chalmette man, pointing to the abandoned properties on either side of his newly fixed home. "They let a little water scare them."
In some cases, there is nothing to go back to.
Karen Ritter, 45, said the home she shares with her 80-year-old mother in Arabi is on the verge of collapse.
Other homeowners are old and have "lived here all their lives. They had everything they lived for in their houses. If they don't have children to help them, there's nothing for them to do" but give up and move out, Ritter said.
St. Bernard Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez called the pullback from coastal areas a "knee-jerk reaction." He predicted residents eventually will be lured back: "People are infatuated with water. They love to be near water."