The state has spent more than $50 million to house evacuees after Hurricanes Delta and Laura, but thousands remain without long-term housing as officials phase out the hotel shelter program set up as a COVID-19 alternative to big congregate shelters.
As of Friday, 2,606 people remain in five hotels in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Terrebonne and Lafayette. FEMA requires that the state place people in permanent residences within a certain timeframe, but many evacuees say they have nowhere to go. Officials say a housing shortfall in the Lake Charles area is making it hard to help people return home.
On a recent afternoon, Eric Hogan and his 13-year-old-niece coaxed their chihuahua into a dog crate outside the Sheraton New Orleans. They were to board a bus chartered by the Red Cross, which is running the non-congregate shelter program in collaboration with the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), and head to the megashelter in Alexandria for case management. They were told it was time to go home.
“I'm ready to go back, but the city is destroyed, so there's really nothing to go back to,” said Hogan, who is quadriplegic because of a childhood gunshot wound.
He expected their house to be unlivable and wasn’t sure why the state was transporting them back to Lake Charles.
“I'm in a wheelchair and we have no place to go,” he said.
Hogan made it back to Lake Charles, after an hours-long bus ride to the megashelter. The family stayed overnight and boarded another bus to Lake Charles. They found that though their apartment wasn’t destroyed, the roof was damaged and the landlord was evicting them.
Hogan said they stayed for a few nights anyway because they had nowhere else to go, then went to stay with friends, but they can only stay for one month.
“I’m mad! I’m upset about it,” Hogan said. “What are people going to do?”
He said he called FEMA and asked for help and he’s looking for apartments, but there are none available in the Lake Charles area. Searches on Zillow and Craigslist turned up fewer than 40 available apartments and homes.
He said he would like to get a FEMA-issued travel trailer, but according to FEMA officials he wouldn’t be eligible for the program because his house wasn’t destroyed. He can apply for individual disaster assistance to help cover the costs of an apartment, but there are few apartments to choose from.
He is willing to move to Lafayette or New Orleans, but the voucher he would receive, were he to be approved, would be based on standard rental rates in Lake Charles. It may not be enough to cover a two-bedroom in another city.
Hogan said he feels stuck and doesn’t know what to do. He’s not alone.
Michelle Timberlake said she receives many calls from people like Hogan every day. She is the director of the New Orleans-based nonprofit AbleD Artist Foundation and Advocacy Center — one of many organizations providing donations and help to evacuees.
“We know people are falling through the gaps, and it's not acceptable,” Timberlake said.
But state officials said the program is largely going smoothly and as planned.
DCFS Regional Administrator Jean Guinta said many people were grateful to be provided bus services to return to the Lake Charles area.
“The majority were very grateful for the accommodations and for the meals that were being provided and all the other services that were available to them,” she said.
At its peak the non-congregate shelter program, which is funded through reimbursement from FEMA but run by the state, housed more than 18,000 people in hotels throughout Louisiana and Texas.
One of the biggest challenges, Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) assistant director Casey Tingle said, is just the fact that evacuees needed to be sheltered so far from the site of the hurricane and their homes. That’s why the state created the reception center at the megashelter, as a sort of station through which to route people.
Guinta said the program was unprecedented and by all measures successful.
“If you'd have told me that we were going to be sheltering this number of folks during hurricane season here in New Orleans, I would've thought you were kidding, but we did do it.”
She said DCFS worked with the Louisiana Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, managed by the Louisiana State Fire Marshal, to inspect the homes of individual evacuees, and if their homes were determined to be in-tact, only then did they inform them that they were to return.
However, according to the fire marshal, more than 300 people returned home to find that their houses were destroyed or majorly damaged. Five hundred and seventy-one people requested re-assessment of their properties through that office. FEMA officials said many of them could end up back in hotels again.
Guinta said evacuees’ stories range vastly “from people who can't wait to get home to people who are really, really afraid about that next step. But I think that that next step is an important step to take.”
Now the state has convened a task force, according to a spokesman for GOHSEP, to assess the housing shortage in Lake Charles and try to find solutions. It’s made up of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Red Cross, FEMA and GOHSEP, and is meeting three times a week.
Elizabeth Redfearn, a supervisory emergency management program specialist with FEMA, said the agency was working to deploy mobile housing units, or travel trailers, in coming months.
Redfearn said more than 3,000 hurricane victims have expressed interest in a trailer, but the agency is expecting to be 1,000 trailers short due to space constraints. It plans to lease land and build group sites in the Lake Charles area. This process could take until February or March.
So far the agency has placed just 117 evacuees and their families in rented homes or travel trailers, mostly in Calcasieu Parish. It has awarded nearly $200 million in individual assistance to survivors of Hurricane Laura alone.
Timberlake and a handful of advocates held a small protest outside the Sheraton New Orleans on Nov. 6, demanding that the state stop kicking people out of the hotels and to provide more financial support and assistance.
Timberlake made her case before City Councilmember Jason Williams staff on Thursday. She asked that the council put a moratorium on all evictions, including from hotels, and declare all evacuees “homeless,” as defined by the Louisiana Housing Corporation, so they can apply for Section 8 housing assistance.
She also asked the councilmembers for $3 million to fund her work. Williams’ chief of staff, Keith Lampkin, said they are concerned about the issue and will consider taking action in the future.
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