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FEMA to cut off Hurricane Ida assistance at end of February

Marilyn Picou stands outside of the FEMA trailer she's been given that has been set up facing the ditch causing safety and accessibility concerns in March 2022.
Kezia Setyawan
Marilyn Picou stands outside of the FEMA trailer she's been given that has been set up facing the ditch causing safety and accessibility concerns in March 2022.

Rosina Philippe, a tribal elder with Atakapa-Ishak/Chawasha tribe, needs more time to help villages like hers recover from damage caused by Hurricane Ida in 2021.

Philippe is a native of Grand Bayou Indian Village, a bayou community in lower Plaquemines Parish that was built by indigenous people and lies outside any levee system.

The village is accessible only by boat. No one has broadband access. So it’s not surprising that residents there may have trouble meeting a Feb. 28 federal-assistance deadline set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Or as Philippe put it, “The FEMA timeline does not equate to needed time.”

Spokesman Mike Steele from the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said that the governor hasn’t made a request for Ida, but he made an unsuccessful request for an extension after Hurricane Laura. So at this point, the governor’s staff is analyzing information and looking for examples elsewhere where FEMA approved extensions and on what grounds, Steele said.

“FEMA recognizes the devastating impact of Hurricane Ida, especially on those from historically underserved communities, and has provided over $1.2 billion in direct assistance to help survivors jumpstart their recovery following this disaster. We will continue to support the state-led recovery effort as needed,” FEMA press secretary Jeremy Edwards said in a Tuesday (Feb. 14) statement.

Local disaster-recovery advocates say that they learned recently from internal sources that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was going to cut off individual and household assistance as of the end of February, 18 months after the date of the federal disaster declaration for Ida. After that deadline passes, no appeals or documentation will be accepted for financial assistance for home repairs, home replacement or personal property.

The looming cut-off marks the end of the period of assistance that FEMA’s Individual and Households Program (IHP) was initially intended to provide, meaning that the program will stop accepting supplementary documentation and appeals at the end of this month, according to a Feb. 8th letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards from Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which provides free legal aid to disaster survivors.

For people in moderately damaged areas, notices that warned of the impending FEMA deadline might push eligible applicants to scramble to file more quickly. But no notices have yet been sent in Louisiana, legal advocates say.

“If you’re gonna have a deadline, at least tell people,” said Laura Tuggle, director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, who said that it may be too late to give effective notice. Even if her staff of lawyers gets a flood of people asking for help in the next two weeks, in the middle of Carnival, they will be “very hard-pressed” to be able to effectively respond.

Also, according to the Legal Services letter, impacted people who have not settled their FEMA cases will also be aced out of the Louisiana Restore Program, which just started taking applications. The program is designed to supply additional disaster aid for low- to moderate-income people who have “unmet needs” that must be addressed before they can rebuild. To qualify for Restore money, applicants must show certain levels of FEMA-documented home repairs or personal-property damage.

The 18-month IHP lifespan can be extended by the President upon “extraordinary circumstances.”

The Legal Services letter asks Edwards to request an extension of 90 days, due to a delineated list of “extraordinary” reasons: “Ida was a Category 4 hurricane, is tied for the title of the strongest storm to strike Louisiana in recorded history, and the fifth costliest hurricane in U.S. history.”

‘Appeals that go on forever’

Few places illustrate the need for an extension better than Louisiana’s bayou communities, where many houses were torn to shreds by Ida. In Grand Bayou Indian Village, as residents tell it, the first FEMA inspectors who came to assess damage after Ida turned around and left, because the island’s docks had been destroyed, leaving mucky landing areas that inspectors feared were likely thick with snakes.

The nationwide pandemic delays for lumber and building supplies have also slowed construction work along the Gulf Coast. And in Grand Bayou Indian Village, townspeople say that the licensed contractors required by FEMA regulations have been achingly slow to travel by boat to give estimates, because contractors already are overloaded with work all across this badly damaged region of the Gulf Coast. Though low literacy is also common in the area’s fishing and maritime communities – where people often quit school to work on the water – in-person consultations are difficult to arrange because of pandemic protocols.

Because of those disparities, an extension would be consistent with FEMA’s 2022-2026 Strategic Plan, advocates say. The Legal Services letter quotes an applicable portion of the equity section of that plan. “A community’s history, culture, racial composition and economic status influence its ability to access federal services. Operating through a people-first approach requires that FEMA resources can be accessed and leveraged by underserved communities in ways that meet their needs,” the plan states. “Addressing disparities requires that FEMA first understand where they exist.”

This set of FEMA cases is not easily resolved, said Steven Reed, a disaster-aid lawyer for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, who estimated that most of his Ida cases require between three and five appeals. “We know that we’re right in our contentions about what they should have been given, because ultimately, we win the appeals,” Reed said. “But we have appeals that go on forever.”

‘Too many missing pieces’

Then there are layers of individual hurdles.

For instance, Philippe has been working with a 75-year-old widow whose home was made unlivable by Ida. The storm’s brutal winds ripped off the back wall and put four feet of water into the six-room wooden structure where she and her husband had lived for decades.

Her husband died shortly before the storm. When Ida hit, she was living in the home with her son, his wife and their child.

The family is now living in a FEMA trailer. The manufactured-housing program that covers the trailer has already been extended by six months, to Aug. 29, though, starting in March, all trailer residents will be charged rent, beginning with a $50 monthly charge and ramping up in June to fair market rent, which ranges between $897 and $1,664 for lower Plaquemines Parish.

Unpaid rents could result in trailer evictions. But the woman and her family can only move out of the trailer if their home is repaired.

Her application for home-repair assistance still faces some major hurdles.

Soon after the storm, the woman managed to file for help from FEMA as a co-applicant on a claim filed by her daughter-in-law, the primary applicant, who died shortly afterward from a massive heart attack. To date, the woman has been unable to get her status changed to that of primary applicant.

She cannot even prove that she owns her home. Ida’s floodwaters, along with hail, rain, and wind-driven rain, ruined the documents that proved the couple’s ownership of the house.

“She is mourning. She’s overwhelmed,” Philippe said. “And there are too many variables, too many missing pieces. For each missing piece of this case, someone has to type it up, download it, fax it. And this is only one case. We have multiple cases with similar issues.”

Note: This story was updated Tuesday (Feb. 14) with a statement from FEMA press secretary Jeremy Edwards.

This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.