NEW ORLEANS – Marsha Williams had always hesitated when mail arrived from the government. After Hurricane Katrina, she began to fear the letters.
One warned that her apartment building could be shut down because of unrepaired storm damage. There were legal notices and forms. What did they all mean? At age 51, Williams was embarrassed she could not read much more than her own name and address.
Three years after Katrina, residents of New Orleans are still buried in a blizzard of government paperwork. But for thousands of storm victims seeking federal aid, the challenge is made more difficult by a little-known obstacle: More than 40 percent of the city's adults lack the literacy skills to comprehend basic government forms. And recovery programs have done little to ease the burden.
"I didn't get a lot of school when I was a child. I guess they didn't have enough to go around," said Williams, who is learning to read in a YMCA adult-education course.
Rachel B. Nicolosi, program director for the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, estimates that as many as 100,000 people from New Orleans may have had assistance delayed, or they never applied for help at all, because they could not read the documents.
"It's a paramount issue. The rules are almost indecipherable for everyone," said Davida Finger, a staff attorney for Loyola University's New Orleans College of Law, which has helped 1,000 people seek rebuilding aid, nearly all of whom had trouble understanding the forms.
Katrina destroyed 27 adult literacy programs when it came ashore in 2005. Only 13 programs survived, so Nicolosi and others have asked for government rebuilding agencies to write aid forms in a "plain language" format that is already used for some federal health and safety documents.
But some government officials say too much plain language can leave out vital information.
"I concede the point that those who are functionally illiterate, they would have challenges with any form," said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said the agency has trained all of its 37 staff members in New Orleans to help "those with literacy disabilities."
The National Adult Literacy Survey indicates that 25 percent of U.S. adults read at the lowest functional level, meaning, for example, that they can locate an expiration date on a driver's license but cannot fill out most motor-vehicle forms.
In New Orleans, that figure is 44 percent, according to the survey, which is performed every decade and was last conducted in 2003.
The cornerstone of neighborhood rebuilding efforts is the $10.3 billion Road Home program, which asks participants to review dozens of documents and sign 18 final legal papers before aid is approved.
One paragraph reads: "Homeowner(s) agree(s) to the filing of certain covenants to run with the land on the property for which this Grant is awarded requiring generally as follows: flood insurance to be maintained if located in Special Flood Hazard Area and restraints on use, occupancy and alienation of the Property. The actual covenants are contained in the instrument to be executed by Homeowner(s) and recorded in the land records of the parish where the Property for which this Grant is awarded and located."
Christina Stephens, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Authority that oversees the Road Home program, said the papers are legal documents, which is "why they sound so serious." But she acknowledged that "it's equally important that people can understand what they are signing."
Since the program was created in 2006, it has held at least 22 training sessions for staff members specifically designed to help illiterate applicants, Stephens said.
Government officials "know who their audience is, and they should write for them," said Annetta Cheek, a spokeswoman for the Plain Language Action and Information Network, a group of federal employees who advocate for clearer language in government communications.
Cheek said the group asked three plain language "translators" to examine the 18 pages of Road Home documents. After several hours, the team was still uncertain of the program's requirements, even though two of the participants were lawyers.
The papers were so confusing that Thomas Wright drove three hours from Mississippi to talk to Road Home outreach workers.
Wright, a retired auto mechanic, graduated from high school in the 1950s and later took shop classes to get his mechanics' license. But when it came to the Road Home forms, he had to enlist friends.
"I needed help from educated people," said Wright, who is black and remembers the segregation of the city school system.
"We got your second-hand books, with half the pages torn out," he said.
Wright applied to Road Home a year ago, trying to rebuild a house in the Upper 9th Ward that was flooded with 8 feet of water. But his application remains stalled; program switchboards refer him back to the forms.
Wright was especially frustrated by one of the most important documents — the highly verbose form that asks applicants to choose among three options: stay and rebuild, sell their home to the state and relocate within Louisiana, or sell their home to the state and leave Louisiana.
"You got 1,500 words (on a form) that could be said in 500," Wright said.
Wright's generation is not the only one that's struggling. According to the Louisiana Department of Education, 42 percent of students who graduated from high school in New Orleans in 2004 had "unsatisfactory" English scores. And more than one in 10 students dropped out of high school.
Henry Lee Burton, 28, said he left school in the ninth grade to take a job and care for his diabetic mother, who died in the months after Katrina.
Though he evacuated to Houston after the storm, he never applied for the FEMA relocation assistance. He said neither he, his mother, nor sister, read well enough to understand the requirements.
Burton, who earns $24,000 a year as a Wal-Mart tire shop worker, said the only assistance he received was a $3,500 payout from his renter's insurance. Two years passed before he could gather up the courage to go to the office and tell his agent he did not fully understand letters from the insurance company.
Now he has a different plan: to learn to read well enough so he does not need help.
"It's something I've always wanted to do and something I need to do," he said. "You really can't depend on the government anyway. You have to do it yourself."