Bankrupt In Biloxi

Hurricane Katrina has left some people deep in debt. Now, as CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports, a new law on bankruptcy is about to make it harder to get out of debt.

Harry and Marilyn Ledbetter of Biloxi might look like they weathered Katrina's fury.

But looks can be deceiving.

"Hurricane Katrina devastated pretty much our way of life," Harry says.

The storm wiped out Mississippi's casinos and the Ledbetters' livelihood. They published tourist guides for hotel rooms. No hotels, no tourists, no income.

"The bills, they keep coming in, you know: house payments, car payments," Marilyn says. "My husband had a stroke about four months ago and we've had a lot of medical bills off of that."

So they're doing what thousands of victims do after every hurricane — turning to an attorney and filing for bankruptcy.

"Never thought it'd happen," Marilyn says.

And they might be the lucky ones — filing now before the new bankruptcy law kicks in October 17th. It was signed into law last spring to make it harder for Americans to erase their debts.

"In recent years, too many people have abused the bankruptcy laws," said President Bush, as he signed the bankruptcy bill.

But for Katrina victims, it could feel like a double whammy.

Why? Because the new law requires reams of detailed records: checkbooks, birth certificates and documents that may have been destroyed.

They have to go through credit counseling and if they earned more than the state average, they probably can't erase the debts, but will have to pay them down.

In short, they may have lost a house, but not the mortgage payments.

"With this catastrophe, it's going to make it doubly difficult for people to get back on their feet," says bankruptcy attorney Hugh Keating.

Some Democrats in Congress want a moratorium for Katrina victims, but Republicans and banking industry backers call it a last-ditch attempt to gut the law.

"Why should we push back the protections against fraud, especially when the law has all the flexibility needed to deal with all the legitimate cases," says banking industry spokesperson Wayne Abernathy.

The Ledbetters expect the old bankruptcy law to give them a fresh start. Countless others fear the new law could leave them with nothing but debt.
  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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