The 2nd of a series of articles focusing on senior citizens of the Gulf and how they have had to face significant changes in their way of life due to Hurricane Katrina & the BP Oil Spill.
Six years after Hurricane Katrina hit the coast of Louisiana, communities are still working to rebuilding from the devastation. One group that has been mostly overlooked — yet struggling to adjust to their new ways of life — is seniors.
"No group has been more heavily harmed than seniors," said New Orleans Housing Authority Director James Perry. 'They paid their mortgage for more than half of their lives, and now, all of a sudden, Katrina takes that away."
Although a large number of Americans face a financial and housing crisis, older adults on the Gulf Coast, who often live on limited income, have been thrown into a way of life they simply cannot afford, he said.
Paying for Homes All Over Again
He criticized the government's Road Home program, which was supposed to return those displaced by the disaster to a home or apartment "as quickly and fairly as possible," according the program's website.
Perry explained, though, "Most retired people have paid off their mortgage, but because the Road Home program [http://www.road2la.org/] paid for the value of homes instead of the cost to repair, many people have been left paying for their houses all over again."
He continued, "What was once a life where you could pay all of your bills and have money left over is now one where you're worried about not having enough money."
The Seventh Ward Community Center, founded in 2008, is doing all that it can to help assist the area's residents, including seniors.
"Our senior neighbors have a very special place in our hearts," said J. Samuel Cook, who directs the center. "We participate in a neighborhood beautification initiative; we help Seventh Ward homeowners with structural damage and things of that nature."
Cook noted that one in four Seventh Ward homes had moderate to severe damage after Katrina. "Seniors have had an even more difficult time because they have had a harder time refinancing and rebuilding their homes," he said. Cook recalled one neighbor, "who only had one room rehabilitated and no resources to fix the rest."
Numerous seniors seek assistance from spiritual foundations. The First Baptist Church of New Orleans has a senior adult ministry that was able to offer support to its members soon after Hurricane Katrina.
"We have noticed that a number of our seniors have a greater sense of loss; they've experienced a lot of that from either their loved ones dying or not being able to return since Katrina," said Bob Moore, the church's associate pastor of administration and senior adults.
Moore mentioned how readjusting has been difficult for many seniors. He called their loss of all their possessions, their way of life and their entire communities a significant test of faith. "I had one member of our senior ministry who lived all over the country after Katrina. She lived in Texas with her daughter, as well as other places, before she settled in Michigan. She's lived in New Orleans all of her life so, of course, that is a huge change for her."
Louisiana State Senator D.A."Butch" Gautreaux, who chairs the Senate Retirement Committee, laments that so many needs remained unmet for seniors and others in the wake of the hurricane and flood. "It's been so difficult to get people back into their houses. Even Paul Rainwater, who once ran the Louisiana Recovery Authority, had to admit to this problem. In addition, residents all over the state are dealing with severe budget cuts and other issues that hit seniors especially hard."
Effort to Privatize State Health Plan
Sen. Gautreaux, a Democrat, said one development that would heavily affect Louisiana seniors is Gov. Bobby Jindal's effort to sell "our state-run health insurance plan to a private company. This provides health insurance for state employees, and some are scared to death they won't have coverage or that their premiums will be too high for them to afford it. State workers can't tap into Medicare, because they don't pay into Social Security."
"The worst part," Gautreaux continued, "is that Jindal is interested in privatizing these services which — in turn — cost tax payers at least $100 million in health benefits. It's very disappointing that he sold off a portion of the Office of Group Benefits without even allowing for a proper bidding procedure. He gave it to the company he wanted to give it to, period."
Travis Scruggs, often called the "Disaster Pastor" of First Baptist Church of New Orleans, emphasized that the spiritual community was able to respond to people's needs far more quickly than the government because they didn't have the same issues with bureaucracy.
"Everyone relied on their spiritual communities because the federal government was not able to respond as quickly as needed. Faith-based initiatives were simply able to work quicker," he said.
Under Scruggs' leadership, over 1,500 volunteers gutted 1,500 damaged homes and rebuild another 150. He went on, "We had a number of senior volunteers who were able to partner with younger groups and serve as team leaders because they usually had more experience with that type of work."
Scruggs noted that a number of seniors pitched in to help during recovery and rebuilding efforts. But many of those his team helped were also seniors, whom he said seemed to have taken the losses from Hurricane Katrina the hardest.
A Paraplegic Senior
"There's one gentleman I will never forget in Gentilly. He is a paraplegic and after the storm — but before the levees breached — while he was getting ready to take a nap, he decided to put on a life vest just in case anything happened. He woke up with his head bobbing against the ceiling because his house had been flooded in a short amount of time."
Scruggs remembered, "The National Guard was able to save him and he was eventually sent to Houston. And when we returned to New Orleans, he no longer had a home. We were able to rebuild his home for him, and that meant a lot."
As the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, seniors in New Orleans have survived by extending their communities and seeking multiple sources of support.
In addition, housing advocates are trying to ensure people are receiving fair experiences in securing homes. Community centers are providing an opportunity for fellowship with others with similar experiences. Placed of worship have provided a spiritual foundation to help elders endure their post-Katrina hardships. And volunteers, family, friends and neighbors are working together to help fill voids left after storm moved on.
At a time when government faltered in reaching out to the state's older adults, it has been their families and community who have continued to meet the obligation to support their elders in coming to terms with their new way of life.
About MetLife Foundation
The MetLife Foundation was created in 1976 by MetLife to continue its longstanding tradition of contributions and community involvement. The goal is to empower people to lead healthy, productive lives and strengthen communities. Underlying the Foundation's programs is a focus on education at all ages and a commitment to increasing access and opportunity.
Katrina L. Rogers, News Reporter, New Orleans Agenda will write a series of up to five articles with video delving into the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster on the lives of elders on the Gulf Coast. The series will examine the effects on seniors from the urban neighborhoods of New Orleans to African American fishing communities and how their families are overlooked and silenced by the mainstream media. Rogers may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stock image from New Orleans Agenda.
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