Why nearly 1,000 bayou parish residents are still waiting on FEMA housing 8 months after Ida
It wasn’t until late April, seven months after Hurricane Ida struck the Louisiana bayou parishes, that Pointe-aux-Chenes residents Earl and Brenda Billiot finally got the approval to move into their temporary housing unit placed on their property, where their former hurricane-ravaged home still sits.
Before then, commercial fisherman Earl commuted back and forth 20 miles each way most days from their son’s house in Bayou Blue, putting a strain on his family’s finances due to the cost of gas.
They didn’t expect it to take this long, especially since the temporary trailer was first placed on their property in February, sitting vacant for months.
Each time his wife Brenda called FEMA to check on the status, they were told to remain patient.
“You know, we've been patient long enough,” Brenda said.
Finally, at the end of April, the Billiots joined a percentage of Terrebonne and Lafourche Parish residents who applied for FEMA housing assistance and have actually been able to move in: 61%.
This comes after WWNO first inquired in March, when only 36% of households had been moved in several months after Ida.
FEMA approved 5,086 households in Terrebonne and Lafource parishes who met the minimum criteria to receive direct housing, which can include temporary trailers.
Between the two parishes, FEMA’s direct housing program had 1,483 households moved into a unit, with 919 remaining to be housed in Terrebonne and Lafourche. Representatives said that while more than 5,000 households met the minimum criteria, not all participated.
‘What’s taking so long’
“What’s taking so long” is a common sentiment echoed throughout the community. In Chauvin, Marilyn Picou had a travel camper installed onto her property last winter, but didn’t get to move in for a handful of months. The steps to the travel camper are face down into a ditch, compromising her safety to get in and out of the camper.
To make matters worse, Picou had to deal with her actual home’s storm damage, smaller-than-anticipated insurance payouts for repairs and the death of her husband.
Contractors finally fixed and rotated the camper the first week of May, which is when Picou received the key.
“I’m just trying to manage it all. I just got to do what I got to do,” Picou said.
And right down the road, Marjorie Rodrigue is another one of the 5,086 households who met the minimum criteria to get FEMA’s direct housing, which include temporary trailers, in Terrebonne and Lafourche. Rodrigue is still waiting for an inspector to ensure that the trailer can be installed.
The current home she is renting has black mold and is causing health issues for her and her family to worsen.
“My doctor said ‘Y'all need to get out of the house,’” Rodrigue said.
The reason for significant delays, obstacles
Local officials and residents impacted by Ida have cited similarities in the housing response after Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Calcasieu and Cameron parishes in 2020.
In a FEMA press release sent in August 2021, 2,400 households had participated in FEMA’s Direct Housing program, a year after the storm devastated Lake Charles and surrounding communities.
Now, there are currently 2,250 households for Hurricane Laura and 151 households for Hurricane Delta still in FEMA’s Direct Housing program in the Lake Charles area, demonstrating the situation survivors are still left with almost two years after the 2020 hurricane season.
The Advocate also reported that many permanent long-term affordable housing units suffered damage as well, stifling outlets for residents to move into more permanent housing.
In prepared answers, FEMA Region 6 communication said the multistep installation process for survivors to get a unit, including everything from parish permitting to getting the proper setup for electrical wiring, is a potential caveat to cause delay.
“If at any point, an inspection fails, this can result in more significant delays,” the statement reads. “This applies to all sites — private, commercial parks and group sites.”
This happened to the Billiots, where they had an energy meter installed in February but were without power until April. According to Entergy’s communication manager Brandon Scardigli, the company is unable to respond about individual customer cases, but did say that the process takes extra time when working with local and FEMA officials.
“Delivering power to trailers, and in some cases entire parks, can be a cumbersome process that includes permitting, engineering and design services, and construction, all of which take extra time to complete safely and in compliance with applicable rules and regulations,” Scardigli said.
The 2021 hurricane season caused residents in Terrebonne and Lafourche to be out of power as late as December, even though the estimated date of restoration was said to be the end of September.
The power outages also caused hospitalizations and deaths from heat exhaustion and carbon monoxide poisoning due to improper use of generators.
And there are even more loops for renters to jump through who may not have private property available for a trailer. The group sites are tasked with meeting multiple requirements, including whether the landowner is willing to enter into a leasing agreement with the federal government and whether those areas can support an influx of residents.
FEMA officials don’t scout these locations in person and instead decide on these locations remotely. Recently a group site on Klondyke Road in Terrebonne was rescinded after public comment due to concerns over traffic congestion due to an ongoing bridge construction program.
As for group sites in Terrebonne and Lafourche, they’re expected to be ready in July — a month into the 2022 hurricane season.
Terrebonne Planning and Zoning Director Chris Pulaski said that they have issued over 10,000 permits this year for construction — five times the annual average. The office also has received three full-time FEMA inspectors to help process applications. He said that it’s not enough that they’ve met expectations for trailer installations on private sites.
For group sites, Pulaski said that there’s a lot more approvals that the parish, contractors and FEMA have to get through to have those sites set up.
“When they said four to six months, I thought it was inclusive of those group sites. When you factor those in, you're talking about a year or more. Now, and hearing just anecdotally, from our counterparts in Calcasieu Parish in the Lake Charles area, they have residents that are just now getting into FEMA units. And Hurricane Laura was in August of 2020. So that's 18 months,” Pulaski said. “They seem to be on track for the private sites, but that's the low-hanging fruit.”
Pulaski said that there is a lot of concern that residents affected by Hurricane Ida still don’t have housing yet almost nine months after the storm. He attributes the slowness due to the steps in the process, which can take a while to get through because of bureaucracy and the dragging pace of administrative action.
But this relief isn’t permanent. There is a crippling housing shortage in the area, where many residents who want to stay have been pushed out.
FEMA’s policy generally only allows residents to live in a FEMA trailer for a period of 18 months but can be occasionally extended if the permanent housing situation remains dire.
If they can’t find homes, they could stay in their temporary trailers, but FEMA policy states that they can begin charging rent for the properties following the 18-month period after the storm declaration. The charges have already started for some residents impacted by Hurricanes Laura and Delta, and the rent is based on Housing and Urban Development’s HUD Fair Market Rate for the local area.
FEMA said they will work with low-income survivors to reduce their rent whenever possible. When asked how, FEMA said survivors have a right to appeal showing proof that they are unable to pay the charged amount.
In an attempt to alleviate delays that have come to be expected from FEMA, this was the first time during hurricane recovery that the state started a concurrent pilot program. For more than five months, Terrebonne Parish set up temporary base camps for survivors to sleep, do laundry and receive meals three times a day until residents were case worked in more permanent solutions.
The state program also set up travel trailers for households. As of mid May, Terrebonne Parish had 2,213 state trailers delivered, with 2,042 of those occupied. Pulaski said that the difference is a combination of units currently unoccupied or recently decommissioned because the residents are no longer in need of that temporary shelter.
The Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness GOSHEP did not give a set date for how long the program will run but rather said they will “continue to evaluate … temporary sheltering needs'' and are still working on an extension with FEMA.
But the state program has also been plagued with delays as well, as local officials have decried the overlap between it and the FEMA program.
Pulaski said that there needs to be a focus on longer-term housing solutions because residents feel that they are being pushed out.
“If they're talking July, August, September, October before some of these other group sites are completed and ready for leasing, what are those people doing between now and then? Chances are, they're going to have found a house or they're going to have moved away from the parish, and we hate to see that,” Pulaski said.
Pulaski added it’s even worse to think that these families could be dealing with this during another year’s hurricane season, which is about a month away, and forecasters say it’ll be another active year.
Back in Pointe-aux-Chenes, Brenda finished installing washer and dryer hookups to the trailer. Her and her husband are now shifting their efforts to what they need to do to rebuild their house in a way to survive the next storm.
They’ve lived in southeast Louisiana all their lives, and Brenda said they shouldn’t be pushed into moving away.
“We’re not asking for much — we just want a home.”