La.’s Road Home Program Hits the Road for Katrina Victims

March 16, 2007

Louisiana’s Road Home program, criticized by lawmakers for too slowly disbursing grants for homeowners ousted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, is hitting the road to reach more applicants.

The program, which provides repair money and buyouts to homeowners in storm-ravaged neighborhoods, opened a temporary office this week in suburban Dallas. It’s the first of several mobile centers planned nationwide.

Road Home officials said the centers are opening under plans forged long ago – not in response to complaints, including those from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, that the program is doling out grant money at a creeping pace.

Of the more than 115,000 applications received, the program has closed about 2,900 cases and awarded $132 million in funds. About 78 percent of those closings took place in February, when the program granted five times more awards than it had during the first four months combined.

Road Home officials said their goal of 6,200 closings in March may fall short because the program is upgrading its computer software.

“It’s a lack of knowledge,” Jeff Haley, director of the Grand Prairie office, said about criticism. “We need to do a better job of explaining the process.”

The Road Home gives repair or buyout grants up to $150,000 to Louisiana homeowners who suffered damage from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, or Hurricane Rita, which delivered a follow-up blow to south Louisiana a month later.

Road Home spokeswoman Opal Jackson said only now is the program established enough to enable temporary centers. She said the offices are necessary because face-to-face meetings have burdened evacuees with long trips to the program’s 11 permanent centers in Louisiana and Houston.

Jackson said mining for tax records and validating insurance are among the steps that have often slowed approvals. She added that not all applicants promptly complete steps in the program, which has so far calculated an average award of $81,000.

The Grand Prairie office, which will remain open through March 21, is aimed toward about 500 evacuees in North Texas who applied but haven’t followed up. Another temporary office in Atlanta is scheduled to open Saturday, and a mobile center in Memphis, Tenn., is also planned.

Complaints about speed have dogged the $8 billion Road Home program. Congressional legislation aimed at hastening the disbursal of funds won approval earlier this month by a U.S. House committee.

Louisiana awarded a contract worth up to $756 million to ICF International Inc. to manage the Road Home, which began in October. Grant awards have been calculated for about 48,000 homeowners, according to the latest Road Home figures.

In the Grand Prairie office, New Orleans native Lynn Jones said she hadn’t heard complaints about the program dragging its feet with applications. Her Road Home caseworker told her to expect an answer in about eight weeks, though Jones is still unsure whether she will sell or move back to her home.

“There’s so much of a gamble if we go back,” said Jones, who is most worried about the city’s levees. “I don’t want to have to go through this again in three years.”

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