Naomi and Barney Foster

part 1, 2

Naomi and Barney Foster with their two sons in front of their ranch home.

"I'm to the point where I don't care what it looks like," Naomi Foster says. "I'll sleep on the floor."

Her husband Barney, who's doing all the work himself, won't hear of it. He tells Naomi, "We have to make it nice. We've waited this long."

Katrina's tidal surge swamped the Fosters' house and destroyed everything inside. Now, the new wiring is in, fresh sheetrock is nailed up and a stack of cedar floorboards is ready for Barney to lay down.

Naomi teaches kindergarten at a Biloxi public school. Barney used to own a beach rental business - personal watercraft, beach umbrellas and the like - just down the street from their house. The hurricane destroyed the beachfront hotels that provided tourists. Just off shore, storm debris lurks in the water. Barney doesn't expect his beach business to come back for several years.

The Fosters have focused instead on rebuilding their one-story ranch home. They want to make life as normal as possible for their two boys, ages eight and 14. "Normal" is a tough goal when you're wedged into a FEMA trailer.

Reilly Morse is a lawyer for the Mississippi Center for Justice. He says storm victims on the Gulf Coast must have "a whole new level of financial literacy" in order to get their homes rebuilt. But even people who possess that literacy, like the Fosters, can get snagged in a tangle of bureaucracy. Before Katrina, they owned a couple of rental properties and ran a small business. They knew their way around insurance companies and mortgage lenders. But nothing could save them from federal red tape.

Soon after the storm, Naomi's sister offered to take in the Fosters at her home in Louisiana. There was even a job offer for Naomi at a local school. But the couple never thought of giving up on Biloxi. After a year of struggling to rebuild, they now wish they had, at least in their darker moments. Even knowing they'll soon move back into their house doesn't make it any better.

"Actually, it's worse," Naomi says. "The year anniversary is coming up and we just knew that we were going to be in our house by then. So the longer we're in the trailer, the more closed up you feel, because the more you accumulate." That's especially true as the boys' sports uniforms and school supplies stack up.

The Fosters are a friendly, talkative couple. Barney is tall and husky, with a soft, velvety voice. Think gentle giant. Naomi, easily a foot shorter than Barney, is sharp and energetic.

For the Fosters, the hardest of Katrina's punishments has been battling the various organs of the federal relief system. It's been a long fight to get a federal disaster relief loan to rebuild their house. The Fosters got handed from one official to the next, each one seeming more indifferent than the last.

For weeks on end, Naomi and Barney took turns arguing with officials on the phone. For reasons they still can't fathom, the Small Business Administration (SBA) held up the disaster relief loan they needed for their house. Barney's voice becomes low and urgent when he describes a call. Explaining why they're a good loan prospect, Barney told a skeptical SBA official that his wife has worked in the same school district for 23 years and they've lived in the same house for 17 years. Barney said into the phone, "You don't know nothing about us. If you look at your facts, we're a good credit risk. It's a deal a bank would do in a heartbeat."

But critics say the SBA isn't doing anything in a heartbeat. The General Accounting Office reports that SBA Katrina loans are taking an average of 2-and-a-half months, well over the SBA's pledge of three weeks. And as Barney Foster will testify, getting a loan approved is no guarantee of actually getting the money. In the year since Katrina, the SBA approved more than $10 billion in low-interest loans to storm victims. Only $2 billion has been paid out. Critics charge that small Gulf Coast businesses are dying for lack of SBA funds.

Continue to part 2

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