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New Orleans Mayor Urge Evacuees to come home

HOUSTON – Almost a year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and forced an exodus from the flooded city, Mayor Ray Nagin was still trying to convince evacuees to come home.

In Houston, he opened the first of what he hopes will be many “New Orleans Journey Home” centers aimed at helping evacuees get back to their devastated city.

“We want you back in the city of New Orleans as soon as possible, because the red beans just ain’t the same without y’all,” he told several hundred evacuees, referring to a favorite New Orleans food. “Y’all got to come back.”

Officials estimate that about half of New Orleans’ pre-storm population of 465,000 has returned to the city, much of which remains in ruins from the August 29 hurricane that killed more than 1,300 people.

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission said there are still an estimated 251,000 Katrina evacuees in Texas, 111,000 of them in Houston.

Nagin has blamed New Orleans’ slow recovery on the fact that $10 billion in aid from the federal government has not been given to homeowners to rebuild or replace their houses.

The money is tied up in bureaucratic wrangling as federal and state officials await a rebuilding plan from New Orleans before the money is distributed.

At the Journey Home Center, Nagin said evacuees could find information about housing, work and other issues.

“This is going to be your spot to find out where the apartments are coming on line, where the next modular homes are coming on line, where you can go to rent somewhere where the landlord don’t jack you up,” he said.

He also offered economic hope, saying there was money to be made in construction and that wages, pushed up by a shortage of workers, had soared. “In the city of New Orleans we don’t have to worry about the minimum wage anymore. It’s over, it’s gone,” Nagin said. The Texas health commission said a survey had found that 59 percent of the adult evacuees in Texas were unemployed and 41 percent of their households earned less than $500 a month.

Some said they stayed in Texas because housing in New Orleans was hard to find and expensive. “I’m ready to go home, but I can’t,” said Renchelle Dixon.

Louisiana opens home rebuilding centers

NEW ORLEANS – A help center for Louisiana home owners to get rebuilding grants after Hurricane Katrina opened on Tuesday as Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco acknowledged frustration with the slow pace of aid.

It took nearly a year for the state to secure more than $10 billion in rebuilding funds, the bulk of which will be used to finance a housing program.

“We are moving in government speed, and it is rather frustrating,” Blanco told a news conference.

She said the state’s Road Home program, which will give eligible home owners up to $150,000 to rebuild or relocate within Louisiana, will encourage many of the hundreds of thousands displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to return.

Katrina, which hit the Gulf Coast August 29, killed 1,339 according to the National Hurricane Center and destroyed some 200,000 apartments and houses.

Blanco said more than 100,000 people had enrolled in the Road Home program for grants, which will be used to help finance rebuilding costs not covered by insurance settlements.

She also defended the state against charges that its leaders could not be trusted with the government money, saying the federally funded program had checks and balances.

In June, U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Louisiana Republican who is likely to challenge Blanco in next year’s governor’s election, criticized “the waste, fraud and abuse that have plagued this recovery at all levels.”

“We are not going to be accused of fraud,” Blanco said. “We have had enough trouble with our own people up in Congress saying how unethical and how corrupt we are. And we are not corrupt.”

Displaced residents still face hurdles. Before the city receives money, it must submit a comprehensive rebuilding plan, which may address the politically thorny issues of whether to build a smaller city in which some flood-prone areas could be off-limits to development.

Until a plan is agreed upon, money for qualified homeowners would be held in escrow, Blanco said.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has vowed to rebuild the city to its pre-Katrina size.