Feds and the State Offer Relief for Flooded Homes in Louisiana

Feds and the State Offer Relief for Flooded Homes in Louisiana

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 More than 100,000 homes were damaged or destroyed after an inland tropical depression entered Louisiana on August 12 from the east. The state is relying on federal aid to get people into their houses, or at least temporary dwellings, as quickly as possible. That need is especially urgent with the Gulf hurricane season underway, Governor John Bel Edwards, said last week.

“As assessments from the flood continue, the estimate of damaged homes could increase,” Shauna Sanford, spokeswoman for Edwards, said. Twenty parishes were declared federal disaster areas this month. Baton Rouge and environs were deluged with two feet, and in spots, three feet of water. Many communities have standing pools now. Orleans Parish escaped the storm’s wrath, however.
 
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President Barack Obama walks with a family to our their flood-damaged home in the Castle Place neighborhood of Baton Rouge, La., Aug. 23, 2016.

By the middle of last week, over 122,000 households in Louisiana had registered for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, Carl Henderson, FEMA spokesman for greater New Orleans, said. The agency had inspected over 100,000 dwellings. FEMA had approved over $155 million in individual assistance for homeowners by mid-week.

Last Tuesday, Governor Edwards handed President Obama, who was visiting the state, a letter asking that Louisiana’s share of recovery costs be reduced to 10 percent from 25 percent now. The state’s struggling with a budget deficit and cash flow problems. In recent weeks, FEMA and Governor Edwards have unveiled details of housing initiatives, sponsored mainly by the feds. These programs include help with repairs, apartment rentals and hotel rooms, and the installation of mobile homes.

Last week, FEMA opened 15 Disaster Recovery Centers in south-central Louisiana. “At least one DRC will open in each impacted parish as sites for these centers are inspected and selected,” Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness or GOHSEP, said.

At the recovery centers, applicants get tailored help with their cases, FEMA spokesman Kurt Pickering in Baton Rouge said. “Most of what we do is by phone or electronically, but sometimes face-to-face time with experts is helpful, or even necessary, and that’s what DRCs are for.”

October 12 is the deadline for applying for FEMA assistance for August food damage, Henderson said. Anyone who sustained losses should register with FEMA by phone or online. They can visit a recovery center, if they like.

Flood victims want to be back in their neighborhoods, and near schools that their children attend and their churches, Edwards said last week. The state, meanwhile, is trying to determine how many residents are still displaced. “Many people are staying with friends and loved ones, making tracking difficult,” Steele of GOHSEP, said. “Other people, who sustained minor damage, remain in or have returned to their homes.”

By the middle of last week, flood victims staying in shelters had declined by three-quarters from a peak of 11,000 in mid-August.

Under FEMA’s individual assistance in disasters—a program dating back to the federal Stafford Act of 1988, Louisiana homeowners who didn’t have flood insurance in the August event and who live in an area where insurance isn’t required by lenders could be eligible for a FEMA grant of up to $33,000. They’re also eligible for a disaster loan of up to $240,000 from the Small Business Administration.

Individual payouts in disasters are usually less than $33,000, however, Henderson said. “The goal of this assistance is to repair the home to a safe, sanitary and secure living condition,” he said. FEMA provides money for repairs, and then homeowners can apply for Small Business Administration disaster loans for more repair work. Individual assistance payments aren’t intended to return a home to its condition before the disaster.

Most homeowners affected in the August event don’t have flood insurance. Statewide, only about 21 percent of residents are covered by such policies, and that number declines the farther an area is from the Gulf Coast.

Early last week, FEMA had 947 housing inspectors in south Louisiana’s disaster-designated parishes, spokesman Pickering said. “They’re independent contractors, deployed from all over the country,” he said.

“In addition to our normal rental-assistance program, for this recovery we’ve turned on the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, and more than 9,000 Louisiana homeowners are eligible for it,” Pickering said. Under the TSA, storm victims lodge in a hotel or motel for a 14-day stay that can be extended in 14-day increments, if they can’t return home. To qualify for the TSA, residents must have been living in a car, shelter, hotel or motel, or their workplace as the disaster unfolded, rather than staying with family or friends, Pickering said.

Last Wednesday, Governor Edwards announced options for longer-term housing, including two initiatives for people eligible for FEMA’s help. One is the Manufactured Housing Units Program, setting up trailers for homeowners who had more than $17,000 in damages and for renters whose units were destroyed. These trailers could stay in the state for up to 18 months.

Some of the mobile homes are already in the Baton Rouge area, waiting to be installed, Henderson said. “They’re one-to-three bedrooms, built to U.S. Housing and Urban Development standards since Katrina and to FEMA contract requirements,” he said. “They’re accessible to those with disabilities. They’re on wheels and can be taken to a homeowner’s property if it’s not in a flood zone. They can be located in a mobile home park.”

Standards for mobile homes used in disasters were tightened after formaldehyde in FEMA trailers threatened Katrina victims housed in them in 2005 and later, spurring lawsuits. FEMA unveiled new and improved units early this year. The agency requires that today’s mobile homes be larger and better ventilated. The bigger, upgraded models to be installed in Louisiana will have more safety equipment, including fire-detection sprinklers, than those used in Katrina.

Construction of the mobile homes installed in New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 met HUD standards. Louisiana’s August floods are considered the nation’s worst natural disaster since Sandy’s $30 billion catastrophe.

Fifty trailers had been assigned to Louisiana residents by last Thursday. But at this juncture, it’s too early to know how many of them will be needed for August storm victims, Edwards said.

Another initiative Edwards mentioned last Wednesday is the Multi-Family Lease and Repair Program. Through it, FEMA identifies large rental properties that aren’t on the market, but that can be made livable within two months if FEMA assists owners. Property owners aided by FEMA agree to make these rentals available to eligible FEMA applicants.

A third program Edwards discussed is “shelter at home,” sponsored by the state. Under it, owners are eligible for up to $15,000 for repairs to get them quickly into their houses. To qualify, flood water shouldn’t have been 24 inches above the floor of the home’s main living area, though the program will accept case-by-case applicants who had higher water. Flood victims can begin signing up to shelter at home on August 29.

Earlier, the governor’s office on August 19 outlined two housing options. One was FEMA’s TSA, providing hotel rooms for people registered with the agency. The other was a service listing available rental properties at lahousingsearch.org for those displaced by flooding. He asked anyone with vacant rentals to participate in that service to help flood victims.

President Obama declared East Baton Rouge, Livingston, St. Helena and Tangipahoa Parishes disaster areas eligible for federal assistance on August 14. Two days later, the following parishes were also named disaster areas: Acadia, Ascension, Avoyelles, East Fe-liciana, Evangeline, Iberia, Iber-ville, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, Point Coupee, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Tammany, Vermilion, Washington and West Feliciana.

Across the lake from New Orleans, St. Tammany Parish suffered flooding in the Tchefuncte River Basin this month. “The parish’s preliminary damage assessment teams have physically seen 70 to 80 structures that began the gutting process and have debris outside,” St. Tammany Parish spokesman Ronnie Simpson said last week. “We were named in the federal declaration for the second group of parishes, and as of late Tuesday, there were 329 FEMA individual assistance applications from this parish. “

Homeowners with damage are urged to register with FEMA by phone at 800-621-3362 or online at DisasterAssistance.gov. For information about Small Business Administration loans for individuals and businesses affected by the flood, visit sba.gov.

Meanwhile, the number of people waiting in line at the disaster recovery centers has been moderate so far, Steele said Wednesday. Hours at FEMA’s DRCs are mostly 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week, until further notice. “Lines have been more of a challenge at the state’s D-SNAP locations,” he said. Last week, the state’s Department of Children and Family Services began distributing emergency food stamps for the August flood under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.