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Ethel Curry

part 1, 2

Ethel in her house. The waterlogged walls and carpeting were ripped out by volunteers.

Whether she tears down or builds back, Ethel Curry can't do anything without financial help. She lived outside the flood zone so she didn't have flood insurance. But she didn't have any other kind of housing insurance either. She wasn't required to carry homeowner's insurance because the mortgage was paid off.

"A few years prior, I did have it," Ethel says, "until a few years ago when my nephew came to live with me. Trying to help him out with the small kids, I never had enough money to take care of special things. I just didn't renew my policy. "

Since Ethel didn't have insurance, she doesn't qualify for the $3 billion federal grant program operated by the state of Mississippi to help homeowners rebuild. It's a problem facing many low-income people in Biloxi. A study conducted before Katrina found that 40 percent of the homes in East Biloxi were not insured.

Advocates for low- and moderate-income people have attacked the Katrina rebuilding grant program for ignoring those most in need. An August 2006 report by the relief organization Oxfam America assessed storm recovery in Mississippi and Louisiana. It said the program's eligibility requirements shut out poor people. "Federal disaster assistance favors people who have economic assets at risk - that is, the affluent," the report said.

Reilly Morse, a Gulf Coast lawyer with the Mississippi Center for Justice, describes the insurance requirement as "criminal." He says lawmakers meant to promote financial self-discipline by first aiding those who had home insurance when Katrina hit. But the rules of the grant program, he says, don't account for hard financial decisions that people like Ethel have to make.

"When you have to choose between your medicine and a homeowner's insurance policy," Morse says, "and you're living in a house that maybe you haven't had to pay for, you're probably going to keep yourself alive before you go and insure the house."

Mississippi officials say they are working on a grant program for homeowners who couldn't afford insurance, but that it's months away, at best. Checks for those who already qualify began to trickle out in late July.

In the meantime, Ethel applied for rebuilding assistance offered by charities and church groups. Nothing's come through. She's all alone with a problem that seems unsolvable.

"I'm saying, 'What do I do? How do I get started? Who can I see?' If I come in and start sweeping, maybe someone will say, 'Just take up a few boards.' But others say it's not that simple, because the mold is growing. Then I'm back to square one again."

Ethel got $14,000 in aid from FEMA for the contents of her house that got destroyed in the flood. That money sits in a bank while she tries to figure out what to do with it. Nearly a year after Katrina, Ethel sounds exhausted as she describes her predicament.

"I've had three churches come out last week and take a look at the house," Ethel says. "They tell me that they don't have anybody in who does the roof. Habitat for Humanity came out. They told me they come in and do the walls, floors, wiring and all that stuff. But right now they don't have anyone to do the roof. I can go to the Salvation Army but the Salvation Army was only helping you with sheetrock. And I don't want to get sheetrock when I don't have a roof on the house. I don't know what to do."

The Oxfam report said that recovery is not an equal-opportunity process. "People who had access to greater resources before the storm continue to have greater access afterward and rebuild more quickly, even though homes in poorer communities are more likely to have been destroyed," the report said.

Now, when Ethel looks around her empty house, sunlight pours in through the rafters. A nephew stripped off the mangled shingles and roof boards as a birthday present. But that's about all the help her family has offered. Ethel says she never asks them for anything. The married ones are busy with their own lives. "The single people in my family are not dependable. They don't volunteer, but when they get down and out, they come here and ask for a room or food, and I'm always willing to help them," she says.

This was a frustrating problem before Katrina, but it was manageable then. Now the isolation is like a trap, in the shape of a FEMA trailer, that Ethel can't escape. She seems to feel this isolation most acutely when she thinks about her only son, a drug addict. He was arrested a month before the storm.

"Every time I write him," she says, "I let him know he could have been here to help me during the storm." Ethel begins to weep. "I tell my sisters, 'You don't know what it is to have a broken heart until your child breaks your heart.' They don't understand, so I just stay busy. The little boys here keep me busy. I worry about those two now, if the water comes back."

Ethel was deeply shaken the day she rode out Katrina by herself. She already suffered from anxiety and depression; over the past year her fears have gotten worse. She is terrified to go far from her house, and she hasn't been to the Gulf shore, just a mile away, since the storm. Flashbacks from the hurricane haunt her every night and keep her from sleep. She can't get rid of the image of the water coming back. "You can watch a movie or read a book, and as you go off to sleep, you might have whatever you read, or whatever you watched on your mind. But it just switches back to that [water]. I can't control it."

One year after Katrina, Ethel Curry's recovery has yet to begin.


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