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Editorial: Years after the ‘walk home’, a long overdue end to state lawsuits

The Louisiana government deserves credit for ending the much-maligned Road Home program with a decision to drop lawsuits against about 3,000 residents who died in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina, the nation’s costliest disaster, and Hurricane Rita, weeks later devastated the Lake Charles area.

A year-long investigation by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune | The Advocate and WWL-TV found that the disaster program was not providing people with enough to cover what needed repairs after their lives were turned upside down. And those who had fewer resources to begin with, the news organizations found, were more likely to have come up short.

From the start, Louisiana officials have struggled to obtain significant funding for homeowners to close the gap between their insured and actual losses. The Road Home name became a bitter joke in regions hard hit during a long recovery period.

In 2008, the state awarded 32,000 homeowners $30,000 in uplifts from the federal housing grant pot. The state was mired in federal bureaucracy and was taking too long to get the money to residents, more than three years after the epic flood. Then the $30,000 provided per homeowner wasn’t enough for high-rise projects, which typically cost six figures or more — a shortage that was evident at the time. Some homeowners found additional funds to get the job done. Some used the grants for other home-related repairs.

Many people who took the money agreed to build their homes within three years. Some say they were told by Road Home representatives they could use the money for other repairs. In fact, in 2013 and 2015, the state changed regulations to allow for spending on repairs unrelated to amount.

But the catch was that homeowners had to prove how they used the money years after they spent it. Until then, few had receipts. Many of them were old and poor. Some filed for bankruptcy. Others, tired of the situation, did not appear in court, and the state mortgaged their property.

The state sued about 3,500 homeowners to get the money back. Only about 5% of what the state asked for was collected.

Last month, Gov. John Bel Edwards, federal and New Orleans officials announced that the largest recovery program in US history was over — and related lawsuits were being dropped.

It was the right decision, and it should have come sooner.

In retrospect, the Road Home program has helped many people return home or move to new homes, and has played a significant role in helping Louisiana communities recover from the devastating storms of 2005. It did so by maintaining equal rights in homes for many residents where flooding – whether from levee breaches or storm surges – devastated not only individuals but the larger local economy as well.

But the home elevation component was botched from the start. Grants were inadequate, and the complexity of the program worked against residents.

“It was a miserable thing for the state of Louisiana to prosecute these individuals because we knew the vast majority of them would never pay,” Edwards said.

He’s right. And we’re glad that the state has – finally – decided to cut its losses, learn from its mistakes and move on.