BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- Life has hung Linda Addison out to dry like the torn and twisted pieces of fabric still snagged in the high branches of the oak trees here, two years after they were carried aloft by Katrina’s howling winds.
In a 250-square-foot plain white box amid rows of identical FEMA trailers on a bare gravel lot on the western edge of this rebuilding town, Linda sits and quietly tells her story.
Listen carefully because Linda’s pitiful predicament is shared in one way or another by thousands of hurricane refugees who are still living in FEMA trailers without the resources to regain the small shreds of independence they enjoyed before the storm. While a million volunteers and billions in grant money flow to many residents who owned property before the storm and the booming recovery economy blesses others with new fortunes, Linda and those like her are being left in the dust.
“It’s a very sad situation,” says Reilly Morse, an attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice. “It’s one of 17,000 or 18,000 tales of woe out there.”
In the summer of 2005, Linda and her poodle Trixie were happily keeping house in a one-bedroom apartment a few miles away in neighboring Waveland. Her $643 monthly Social Security disability check was just enough for her to pay the $109 a month rent on her federally subsidized place, keep an old car running and indulge in her only vice: Coca-Cola.
By some standards, it wasn’t much of a life, but it was hers. She could get to church when she wanted, take a few ceramics classes at the senior center and host grandson Dustin, 11, and granddaughter Hannah, 5, the children of her only child, on weekend visits from Gulfport. She could look forward instead of backward on three marriages that had twice left her a widow – the first time when she was just 22 -- and once a divorcee, and on a lifetime of toil in the retail sector in which “I sold everything but fast food and my body” before winding up disabled in 2002 at age 60 with spine, hip, thyroid and blood-pressure problems.
Then came Katrina. She fled to Bogalusa, La., with a neighbor and returned to find that water had filled her ground-floor unit to the rafters. “When we tried to open the door, honey, my couch was in front of the door, the refrigerator on its side,” Linda recalls in her soft, lilting voice.
Looters add to storm's toll
The horror mounted. Within days, looters had taken everything of value from her apartment except “a few pictures and my Bibles.” She found space to live in a tent in Clermont Harbor, west of town. Night after night, she struggled to sleep in the stifling summer air, kept awake by the screams of what she thought was a lost or injured cat. It was a woman, trapped in the debris, later rescued.
By March, Linda had found some stability, moving in with her only sibling, a younger brother, and his wife, in Oakridge, Tenn. One night as they watched television, her brother clutched his chest and died. “I’ll never forget it,” she says, choking with tears. “I held his little face up and his wife called 911. As far as we knew, he didn’t have heart trouble.” Jim Jones was 47.
When FEMA found her a trailer later in the spring of 2006, she moved back to Hancock County, which is where she now awaits word on permanent housing. There is no public or subsidized housing available, most of it destroyed by the storm, programs to replace it barely in the planning stages. Market-rate rentals are cruelly beyond her reach.
She has heard of several possibilities from FEMA representatives, all of them daunting. “What scares me is they’re saying they’re going to put us up at the end of Highway 603 in Picayune,” she says. With gas as high as it is, she wonders how she could afford to drive back to see her doctor, whose office is across the street from the park she lives in now. Also, she hears that drugs, prostitution and other crime, problems where she lives now, are worse at the Picayune park.
Mainly, it’s the uncertainty that plagues her. Its surroundings aside, the trailer, cool and comfortable on a hot August morning, with its handicapped entry ramp, is working out well for her and Trixie. But what’s next? And when?
“Two people could call FEMA and ask five people the same question and they’d get 10 different answers,” says Linda. “I’m really afraid of the next day. People talk about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t see the tunnel.”
A FEMA representative took Addision’s name from MSNBC.com and agreed to seek some answers about her case and the general fate of those like her, but did not call back. On the agency’s Web site, a recent entry explains that FEMA will be handing off cases like Linda’s to the Department of Housing and Urban Development as of Nov. 1.
'She's out of luck'
Attorney Morse fears some people will get lost in that shuffle. “She’s out of luck. She’s the lowest priority and every program that is out there is at least six to 12 months away,” Morse says. “What’s going to happen with these folks is anyone’s guess. I don’t think it’s alarmist at all to say people could become homeless.”
Local Habitat for Humanity Project Manager Wendy McDonald, who brought Linda’s plight to MSNBC.com’s attention, also has no solution. Linda’s income is way too low to qualify her for the sweat-equity home-building program. “Even if I gave her a home, she could not afford the insurance,” says McDonald, who was able to get a volunteer advocate working on Linda’s behalf.
That advocate, Mick Quinlan, is looking at FEMA’s “Mississippi Cottage” program, which places trailer occupants into more permanent housing for another two years, but the program selects participants at random.
Linda is a proud woman who is not going to dwell on just how poor she is, but you do the math: $643 a month is $148.38 a week, not even two-thirds of the federal minimum wage for a full-time worker and well below half the minimum wage in many states. It’s $7,716 a year, hopelessly beneath the federal poverty level of $10,210 for a single person.
While you’re at it, consider these price tags of irony that surround Linda as the recovery steams forward for others. Across the street, a liquor store sells bottles of wine that cost more than what she lives on for a week. Within a few hundred yards of where Linda’s trailer sits, pleasure boats are being sold for well more than 10 times her annual income. A mile away as the crow flies, multimillion dollar mansions are rising, Phoenix-like, on Beach Boulevard.
And as appalling and sad as it is, you probably won’t be surprised that, for Linda, it adds up to this: “Sometimes I wish I had stayed here for the storm and then it would all be over.”
If you would like to help Linda Addison, checks made out to "Benefit of Linda Addison" may be mailed to Hancock Bank, 601 Highway 90, Bay St. Louis, Miss., 39520, or taken to any branch of the bank in person. Other offers of help may be made through the Bay St. Louis office of Habitat for Humanity at 228-467-9699.
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