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1 Year After Hurricane Laura, FEMA Head Again Promises Aid To Struggling Lake Charles

Bill Feig
Devastation from Hurricane Laura viewed from above. August 29, 2020.

On the day before the anniversary of Hurricane Laura, and as Louisianians eye another storm forming in the Gulf, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell toured storm-ravaged southwest Louisiana Thursday with Gov. John Bel Edwards and discussed federal disaster aid with local officials.

Multiple natural disasters and a slow recovery have left many in the region increasingly frustrated at the federal government as they brace through another hurricane season while still sifting through the debris of the last.

A drive through Lake Charles reveals a city still reeling from the impacts of multiple disasters, which Criswell acknowledged during the tour. When it hit on Aug. 27, 2020, Category 4 hurricane Laura was the strongest storm to make landfall in Louisiana since 1856. It was followed by Category 2 Hurricane Delta weeks later, then an ice storm in February and flash flooding in May.

“The destruction that we saw from the combined impacts... from Hurricane Delta in addition to the May flooding and the ice storm are really unprecedented,” Criswell said. “But recovery takes time.”

Before the tour, Criswell met with Edwards, Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter and other regional leaders who have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of the federal government’s response to the disasters.

Edwards said the state has received a total of $1.3 billion in disaster aid through a variety of programs. But he continues to call on the federal government to approve more than $3 billion in unmet disaster recovery needs that remain.

Hunter has also been on a campaign to garner more support, saying the city has only received about $68 million so far from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For months, Hunter has publicly said that the region “desperately needs” supplemental disaster aid from the federal government — the kind of funding that typically arrives weeks or months after the storm to prop up state programs aimed at helping residents rebuild their homes.

Funding for those programs requires an act of Congress, an action Hunter said is long overdue.

“For Hurricane Andrew, it took 34 days for Congress to respond with supplemental disaster aid, 98 days after Superstorm Sandy and 10 days after Hurricane Katrina,” Hunter said. “Here we sit, having endured four federally-declared natural disasters… within the span of a year, and we do not have the same response that came 10 days after Hurricane Katrina.”

Beyond the appeal to Congress, Hunter requested that President Joe Biden immediately act to reduce state and local governments' cost-sharing burden for disaster recovery.

Criswell promised to bring their complaints and a list of action items back to Washington, but offered no hard deadlines for when additional aid would materialize.

“Regardless of the scope, the scale, the size of a disaster, recovery itself never comes quickly enough,” Criswell added.

Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore also held a press conference in the city this week, calling on Attorney General Jeff Landry to advocate for homeowners still struggling to get payments from insurance companies.

“Here we sit in Lake Charles in the middle of hurricane season, with deteriorating blue roofs, people living in their cars and garages,” said Honore, chastising officials for not offering more help.

Honore went on to criticize the ongoing expansion of oil and gas infrastructure in the area, saying the state gives tax breaks to polluting companies but is not doing enough for residents.

To complicate matters, Louisiana finds itself in the crosshairs of yet another tropical system. Edwards, referencing a report from the National Weather Service, said Louisiana is “very likely” to be hit by another hurricane this weekend or early next week. It could reach or near major hurricane strength, forecasters said Thursday.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and local listeners.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.
Tegan Wendland is a freelance producer with a background in investigative news reporting. She currently produces the biweekly segment, Northshore Focus.