Volunteers Give Katrina Fraud Victims a Second Chance

It has been four years since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, but the benefit of federal rebuilding money is just now starting to be felt for thousands of homeowners who lost everything.

Many destroyed homes were located in the poorer neighborhoods of New Orleans, particularly in the Lower Ninth Ward, the parish that was at the center of the storm's ire.

But just as these homeowners get the chance to rebuild, some are being victimized by unscrupulous contractors looking to scam their money.

Some have for years been living in FEMA trailers, at homes of friends nearby or as displaced residents in other areas, waiting it out until the money came through.

I am in New Orleans working as a volunteer for the community outreach organization, Common Ground Relief on my spring break from college to help rebuild some of these homes. Our group of nine volunteers takes on small- to medium-sized construction projects for people who need the help.

On this day we worked on the house of Geraldine Lepree, 55, and her brother Robert. During Katrina their home was flooded with 12 feet of water and was rendered uninhabitable. Geraldine Lepree said that after filling out hundreds of papers to apply for federal aid money, they finally received a check for $40,000 — three and a half years after they lost everything.

Living paycheck to paycheck their whole lives, the amount of money they received was more than they had ever had before. They weren't sure how to spend it or how to protect themselves from the fraud that they ended up falling victim to.

Geraldine said that an elderly man came to her, 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. She said he took her money and he skipped town.

Geraldine is not the only one. Many people who receive federal aid checks don't or can't read the fine print of vendor's contract. And because there are no state laws in Louisiana for contractor fraud, the perpetrators often get away with stealing peoples' chances for a new life.

The contractors prey on the elderly and the poor. Sometimes they even write up faulty contracts with tricky wording that leave them guilt-free for their crime.

Although Geraldine lost most of her money, she was one of the lucky ones. She was able to use the rest of her federal money to hire a reputable construction firm that did as much as they could with the money she had. The construction company connected her with Common Ground to finish the rest of her house with volunteer labor.

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

Looking over the progress our small group of nine has made in a day — dry-walling half of a whole floor — she 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.

Geraldine, your perseverance to come back to the city that you love, New Orleans, makes me believe too.

Courtney Crowder is an intern for FOXNews.com who spent her spring break volunteering in New Orleans.

Click here for more about the volunteer group's work.