Julie Suaste

part 1, 2

Julie and Ruben spend the Christmas holidays with their son in Indiana. They want to return to Biloxi and are on the waiting list for a FEMA trailer they plan to park in their driveway. The couple owns a small rental house in Biloxi, which also got flooded. They're waiting to apply for a federal grant program passed by Congress in late December that will give up to $150,000 to homeowners who lived outside the flood zone and didn't have flood insurance. In the meantime, they're applying for almost $200,000 in low-interest disaster relief loans offered through the Small Business Administration.

Julie Suaste in her repainted house on moving-in day, July 4, 2006.

By early February, six months after the hurricane, Julie and Ruben are back in Biloxi. They've spent $20,000 to fix up the three-bedroom house they own in D'Ibeville, a community just north of Biloxi that also got flooded. The house there was not as badly damaged as their new home, closer to Biloxi's Back Bay.

Julie is delighted to be living under the same roof with her husband and young son. Plumbing work in the kitchen is incomplete so she'll have to wash dishes in the bathtub for a time. Like many other Gulf Coast residents, Julie had to struggle to land a contractor for the work on the rental house. "We'd call them and sometimes never hear back from them," she says. Local officials have been warning residents for months that some of the out-of-town contractors crawling the area are unscrupulous. "We had bids from $6,000 to $45,000," Julie says. "Some of the bids have been absolutely outrageous."

The couple is still unsure whether to rebuild their flood-damaged house and move back into it. Even though it's just the shell, the Suastes have to keep paying the mortgage. Julie worries that if federal financial help doesn't come through, they'll start edging towards bankruptcy. And even if they do get a low-interest federal disaster loan, that means more debt to deal with. "It's so overwhelming to think about taking out a second mortgage on a home we had just built," she says.

After Katrina, roughly 30,000 South Mississippians are in the same fix. "You have families who had all their equity tied up in their homes and now they have a mortgage for a slab," says Ricky Mathews, publisher of the Mississippi Gulf Coast's Sun Herald newspaper. (A "slab" refers to the only thing left of many homes after Katrina hit, the concrete foundation.) "They were told by the federal government and the floodplain maps that they didn't need flood insurance. Thirty-thousand homes for a place the size of South Mississippi, that is significant."

In early spring, Julie and Ruben have decided to go deeper into debt to save their Biloxi home. They've hired a contractor, but will do as much of the work as they can, especially painting. Meanwhile, Ruben is taking classes to become an electrician and Julie is training to work as an insurance adjuster specializing in storms and catastrophes. Even if they go back to work at the Beau Rivage, which plans to reopen on the one-year anniversary of Katrina, both want to have more job flexibility. Hurricane season returns every summer to the Gulf Coast.

Julie had always been proud of the relatively prosperous life she and Ruben had put together, the product of hard work and prudent investing. "We were doing good," she says, shaking her head at the memory. "I thought maybe in ten years I could retire and be a stay-at-home mom. Now we're starting from scratch with more than $200,000 in debt. Now we're classified as rich-poor."

By early July, much of the storm debris has been hauled away from Biloxi. Many neighborhoods are a patchwork of houses being repaired, moldering homes standing vacant, and empty lots growing thick with weeds. The yard at Julie's new house is also a bramble, but that can wait. July 4 is moving day. Just ten months after the storm, Julie and her family are back home, with bright yellow walls, soft carpeting and brand-new furniture.

Julie's struggle to recover from Katrina is over, or at least the hardest part. She and Ruben will start back at the Beau Ravage Casino on August 29. The kitchen cabinets are on order and there's still some painting to finish. Looking back, Julie is not much impressed by the government's response to Katrina. She never did get a FEMA trailer. No word yet on her application to the homeowner's grant program. They had to go deeper into debt and sell their rental house to pay for the repairs to their new home. One thing Julie says she's learned from the year after the storm is to be better prepared for the unexpected.

"You're not so focused on working in one particular job," Julie says. "You're not so focused on thinking this is where you'll always live. Expect to change and adapt. Every day, something changes."

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