Another Hurdle for Hurricane Survivors: Massive Debt

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a lot of people who are trying to rebuild are actually digging themselves into a financial hole.

It seems that bills are all that Wanda Bishop sees. They've been piling up ever since Hurricane Katrina.

"On just gas alone, I've spent just in two-and-a-half weeks $600," Bishop said.

Bishop and her husband, James, are struggling to start a new life in Oklahoma, miles away from the home and jobs they lost in Slidell, La. Having gone through their savings, they're now relying on credit cards for daily necessities.

"We had no choice but to use them," she said. "You can't pull cash from out of the air."

That's what Linwood and Grace Joyner said a year ago. They were forced to turn to credit cards after losing their mobile home to Florida's Hurricane Ivan.

"It's very hard for me to take," Grace Joyner said, crying.

Six months later, they were $60,000 in debt. They had to file for bankruptcy.

"When you're in the middle and a disaster happens, you fall and you fall hard," she said.

A Common Problem

The Joyners are not alone. Bankruptcy filings go up more than 11 percent a year after a major hurricane hits a state. After two years, they go up nearly 30 percent, according to the Nevada Law Journal.

"We see a lot of people file for bankruptcy following a hurricane who never would have thought they would have ended up in a bankruptcy courthouse -- hard-working, responsible people," said Elizabeth Warren, author of "The Two-Income Trap."

Financial experts say there are things people can do to stay out of debt after a disaster:

    Don't sign anything: Don't let a creditor force you into a payment plan.

    Hoard your cash: Make only minimum monthly payments until you're in a better situation.

    Most important: Make credit cards your last option -- get everything you can from relief agencies first.

The Bishops hope they'll have jobs soon and will be able to catch up, but they know the odds are stacked against them.

"We'll send them what we have when we have it," she said.

ABC News' Gigi Stone reported this story for World News Tonight.