The costs of natural disasters are skyrocketing. America’s systems for preparing for them and helping victims are falling short.
Once, Mark Benfatti couldn’t imagine living anywhere but St. Bernard Parish, a close-knit, working-class community perched precariously between New Orleans and the wetlands leading to the Gulf of Mexico.
His parents had moved there in 1963, when he was a year old. It’s where he met and married his wife, Donna, and where they raised their three daughters. It’s where he ran four restaurants, serving the same familiar faces every day of the year.
He planned to spend the rest of his life there. But after Hurricane Katrina, Benfatti said, he had no choice but to leave.
Katrina flooded the parish with up to 15 feet of toxic, fetid water that stagnated for weeks. It took everything. His home. His businesses. It spared only a few things stored in his attic, he said.
“My wife had a mother that was elderly, and there was going to be no hospital. We had a daughter in school, and there was going to be no schools,” Benfatti said. “We just knew that we couldn’t be down there. We made a choice, and it wasn’t easy.”
Benfatti was among an estimated 6,500 St. Bernard residents who moved across Lake Pontchartrain to St. Tammany Parish in the year after the storm, an exodus unlike any other in post-Katrina Louisiana.
The utter devastation of St. Bernard was a big reason. But so was Road Home, the program that was supposed to help people rebuild.
St. Bernard Parish had the state’s highest share of homeowners — more than 76% — whose damage wasn’t completely covered by Road Home, insurance payouts and Federal Emergency Management Agency aid, according to an analysis of Road Home grants by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune | The Advocate and WWL-TV.
Many homeowners took those Road Home checks, which state leaders hoped would be used to revitalize their communities, and they left.
Unlike New Orleans, where several neighborhoods were spared from the catastrophic flooding, all of St. Bernard was left in ruins.
In New Orleans, households in areas with a median income of $15,000 or less had 70% of their damage covered through grants from the state’s recovery program, FEMA and insurance payments. Those in areas with a median income greater than $75,000 had 80% of their damage covered. The state trend was almost identical.
All of St. Bernard Parish was on the low end of payouts. Regardless of income, most residents had about 70% of their costs covered, about the same as poor residents in New Orleans. Poverty tracks closely with race in New Orleans, so the shortfalls in the city disproportionately hurt Black people. In St. Bernard, where nearly everyone was white, there wasn’t as much extreme wealth or poverty.
Two former Road Home officials acknowledged inequities in the program. The state Office of Community Development took issue with the analysis, but none of the points it raised affected the news organizations' findings.
For homeowners who couldn’t make up the difference or didn’t want to rebuild, Road Home provided an option to sell to the state. Many St. Bernard residents did. About 37% of residents there who got Road Home grants chose to sell their properties, compared to about 8% statewide and about 11% in New Orleans.
“People didn’t want to be the only house on their block, and they didn’t really get enough money to rebuild a house from scratch, so they took the buyout option,” said Alison Barrios, a real estate broker in St. Bernard.
After the storm, St. Bernard’s population dropped by nearly half, from about 67,200 to about 35,900 in 2010, according to the census.
That’s not what state leaders hoped for when they designed Road Home. “I didn’t want areas that had been severely damaged to disappear off the face of the earth,” said Walter Leger, a St. Bernard resident and a key architect of Road Home. “We wanted to help people get back into their homes and rebuild those communities.”
But it was understandable, said St. Bernard Parish President Guy McInnis.
“You’re looking at your home being 100% damaged in a community that's under 36 inches of sludge,” he said. “You’re in Houston or you’re in Kenner, or you’re in Baton Rouge, and there’s a house you can buy with a school nearby. People moved because, rightfully so, they wanted to put their lives back together as soon as possible.”
The shortfall in grants in St. Bernard owed in large part to lower property values. The Road Home based the size of a homeowner’s rebuilding grant on the lesser of two numbers: the pre-storm value of the home or the cost of repairs. This meant in areas where property was worth less, many homeowners were shortchanged.
Community leaders complained at the time that the program was unfair, but architects of Road Home said the federal government required those rules.
HUD no longer allows disaster relief to be used to compensate homeowners for losses; instead it reimburses them for expenses incurred as they rebuild.
“HUD and other federal partners recognized the shortcomings of the federal response in Louisiana and have worked to improve those programs in the 15 years since,” said De’Marcus Finnell, HUD deputy press secretary.
Property values in St. Bernard are lower in part because the parish is harder to get to, cut off from most of the city by drawbridges and railroad crossings. Historically it has had a greater risk of flooding. To the north and east lie wetlands. To the west, just past the Lower Ninth Ward, is the Industrial Canal, where floodwalls collapsed not just during Katrina, but during Hurricane Betsy in 1965.
Because of the lower property values, even the tonier areas of St. Bernard got less of their damages covered. More than 92% of all Road Home properties in St. Bernard suffered damage that exceeded their pre-storm value, according to the news organizations’ analysis. In New Orleans, 66% of the properties had damage that exceeded their pre-storm value.
Over the past 12 years, St. Bernard’s population has slowly rebounded; it’s now 65% of its pre-storm size. Parish officials credit low crime rates, a low cost of living and an aggressive anti-blight campaign. The risk of flooding has decreased after the closure of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal, which carried storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico, and the construction of a 22-mile levee system around the parish.
Parish officials describe the community’s recovery as a hard-fought miracle. But for those like Benfatti who made the difficult decision to leave, it remains a bittersweet success.
“It’s 17 1/2 years now, and every day I miss my community,” said Benfatti, who now lives in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. “But we didn't have time to wait for it to get going again.”