Flood Victims in South Louisiana Shelters Ease as Water Recedes

Flood Victims in South Louisiana Shelters Ease as Water Recedes

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South Louisiana residents escaping floods by staying in shelters fell from a peak of over 11,000 early last week as water receded in spots. Meanwhile, the region’s shelters have consolidated since the first ones opened on August 11 in this month’s costly, storm-and-flood event. As of last week, a slow-moving system had destroyed or damaged at least 40,000 homes, Governor John Bel Edwards said.

“People are itching to go home and see their property, especially as the electricity comes on” and roads open, Catherine Heitman, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Children and Family Services, said. By mid-week, those in shelters had declined to 5,435, and they fell to about 4,000 on Thursday. “As cell phone service in the Baton Rouge area improves, evacuees are calling relatives to pick them up from shelters,” Heitman said. “But when they get home, the really hard part—the cleanup—begins.”

This month’s flooding has left at least 13 dead in Louisiana. So how did all of this happen? In southern parts of the state, two feet of rain or more fell from August 12 to 13, after moisture moved from warm Gulf waters into western Florida and across Alabama and Mississippi into Louisiana. Over that period, Baton Rouge received more than 19 inches of rain. In nearby Livingston Parish, Denham Springs and Watson got 25 inches and 31 inches, respectively. To the west, Lafayette had over 21 inches.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration called the system “a sheared inland tropical depression.” Last week, water stood in many south Louisiana communities, and it was rising in St. James Parish.

Given the event’s magnitude, the need for shelters and temporary housing will last for awhile, Heitman predicted. Those staying in shelters have little privacy but they’re safe and being fed, she said.

“As flood waters rise and recede, the number of shelters that are open is fluid,” Red Cross spokeswoman Jennifer Ramieh in Baton Rouge said. “Some shelters were forced to close because of high water, but others opened in their place.” Twenty-six of the 36 shelters open to Louisiana’s evacuees last Wednesday morning were operated by, or run in cooperation with, the Red Cross.

At large Red Cross shelters in the state’s deluged capital, 1,212 evacuees were staying at the Baton Rouge River Center last Wednesday, versus over 1,700 two days before. The Celtic Studios shelter in the capital held 901 people, down from more than 1,400 earlier.

To the east of Baton Rouge in Ascension Parish, the Lamar Dixon shelter housed a crowd of 800 at midweek. A great number of Ascension homes have been destroyed or damaged this month, Governor Edwards said last Wednesday, without giving a tally.

How are these shelters financed? “Red Cross shelters are funded by donations and are run with community partners, faith-based groups and parish and local governments,” Ramieh said. “We don’t depend on federal funding.” Flood victims apply directly to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance with hotel stays, rent, temporary housing and home repairs.

The fed’s role in this disaster recovery will be big, nonetheless, and is welcomed by residents—especially given the state’s budget crisis and cash-flow worries. “FEMA will pay 75 cents on the dollar, or 75 percent of Louisiana’s disaster recovery costs,” FEMA spokeswoman Robin Smith, speaking from Baton Rouge, said last week. “That includes individual assistance and public assistance provided by the state and parishes.”

The cost of the August disaster is expected to exceed a $1.3 billion total from floods last March in Texas and Louisiana. The Red Cross last week said that Louisiana’s August floods were probably the nation’s worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The recovery from Sandy cost $30 billion.

August 18, the state’s Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne told a panel of state officials that a bank loan may be needed to help pay for some government operations near term, since timing of federal aid for the flood recovery is uncertain.

Louisiana’s Emergency Preparedness budget is $2.2 million, Heitman said last week. “This covers shelter leases and emergency-preparedness personnel,” she said. “It doesn’t cover response.” That money pays in part for leases for mega-shelters or huge centers in north Louisiana, intended mainly for Gulf residents fleeing hurricanes.

“A lot of our disaster-response and recovery costs is shared with the federal government,” Heitman said. “We’re hoping for federal reimbursement for as much as possible in the current response.”

In one state effort, the Depart-ment of Health on August 14 opened a shelter at LSU’s Carl Maddox Fieldhouse on the Baton Rouge campus for those who are chronically ill, disabled or homebound.

On August 14, President Obama declared East Baton Rouge, Livingston, St. Helena and Tangipahoa Parishes disaster areas as eligible for federal assistance. And on August 16, the following parishes were also named disaster areas: Acadia, Ascension, Avoyelles, East Feliciana, Evangeline, Iberia, Iberville, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, Point Coupee, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Tammany, Vermilion, Washington and West Feliciana.

At the shelters, conditions are improving. “Many people escaped the rising water with just the clothes on their backs,” Heitman said. “Mobile laundry facilities and portable showers were installed in several shelters in Baton Rouge this week.” And as cell phone service in Baton Rouge recovers, those in shelters can reach relatives and follow flood news.

In the past week, shelters have fed people who just need a meal. “If someone wants to eat, but not sleep there, that’s fine,” Heitman said. But she also said rumors that shelters were distributing food vouchers may have caused people to sign up to stay in the facilities, inflating the numbers of those housed in shelters for awhile.

Talk regarding a disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program circulated in south Louisiana last week. Benefits haven’t started yet but could begin in some parishes on August 22, Governor Edwards said last week. In the wake of the flood, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture will administer a disaster SNAP based on an application from the state, and Louisiana will distribute the benefits.

As of presstime on Friday, more than 90,000 Louisiana flood victims had applied for assistance from FEMA. The agency asks anyone who sustained damage from the event to register by phone at 800-621-3362 or online at DisasterAssistance.gov.

When asked about federal help and whether trailers will be included, Smith said a joint FEMA-state task force on housing began work on August 16 and was considering options. The task force hadn’t announced any decisions as of last Thursday.

This article originally published in the August 22, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.