Naomi and Barney Foster
part 1, 2
In the aftermath of Katrina, the Fosters were ready to believe Washington's promise of bold action to help the Gulf Coast recover. (There's a Bush/Cheney bumper sticker on their grey Suburban.) But their anger at the federal government's hurricane response began early. FEMA refused to reimburse them for the costs of evacuating, aid of up to $2000 dollars that others were routinely getting. The Fosters say they never got a good explanation why the help was denied.
"What really upsets me is you work all your life and you pay all your taxes and then when it's time to finally ask for some help, we've gone through so much red tape," Naomi says.
Naomi complains that families like hers, the working middle-class, are falling through the cracks. "The people who will stay and who will rebuild Biloxi, the whole Gulf Coast, those are the people that will stay and will rebuild," she says. "But we're getting put through the wringer in order to get any type of help."
In early spring, SBA funds finally began trickling into the Fosters' bank account. In the meantime, the couple had to borrow around $30,000 from relatives to start rebuilding their house. In April, they applied for Mississippi's $3 billion home-rebuilding grant program - money allocated by Congress. They were among 17,000 other South Mississippians hoping for a grant of up to $150,000. Barney doubts they'll ever see a penny.
"A few weeks ago, the governor of Mississippi came on and said everybody would be getting a letter in a week or two," Barney said. "I told Naomi, 'Don't check the mail; it's not coming.' This thing's been hijacked by the SBA and the mortgage companies. They've turned it into a bureaucracy."
Hurricane Katrina stripped the Fosters of the middle-class life they once had in Biloxi, but their battles with bureaucrats took away something else: a kind of faith.
"I had a false sense of security," Naomi says. "I believed with my heart and soul that no matter what catastrophe or disaster happened, our government, the big giant, would come in and help. I'm talking about long-term recovery. They're not there to help."
Barney agrees. "You know, when we first came back [after evacuating], I was like, 'All we have to do is get back in, bust my butt. We'll be back in our house.' You know, work, work. But it don't go that way. You can't get the money," he said.
It was Barney who convinced Naomi to rebuild in Biloxi. "Before Katrina, this place was a tourist town. A lot of families. Everybody was real nice. Police. It was a good place to live." Now, Barney's not so sure.
"I hate to admit it, but maybe Naomi was smarter than me. She saw the writing on the wall. Get out of here. This place isn't coming back," he says. "She had a job lined up in Lafayette, Louisiana. And I said, 'No, we can't leave. We can't leave.'"
Barney and Naomi now wish they had. They worry especially for their children, for whom nothing has been normal or easy. They fear what effect this year of rebuilding will have on the boys later in life.
Still, Barney is an optimist. He believes their lives will be much better in a year or two. And perhaps he'll even try to forget how bad the year since Katrina has been. "Maybe it'll all run together and seem like it was a month," he says. "Instead of seeming like a year of our life is just gone."
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