Four and a half months after two hurricanes ripped apart Louisiana, tens of thousands of people are still suffering. While the national election has absorbed the attention of the nation, thousands of people are still not back in their homes. Many have had to move a half dozen times. Some are living in tents. It is past time the nation turned some of its attention back to these mostly forgotten people.
Hurricane Laura, a category 4 storm with winds of nearly 150 miles an hour, hit on August 27, 2020 on the coast of southwest Louisiana. Forty-three days later, on October 9, Hurricane Delta, a category 2 storm with winds over 100 miles an hour, hit 10 miles away. Laura caused $19 billion in losses and Delta caused another $2.9 billion.
The brunt of the destruction has been in Calcasieu and Cameron Parishes. Calcasieu has a population of 203,000, according to the Census. Lake Charles, home to 78,000 people and the sixth biggest city in Louisiana, is the biggest city in Calcasieu. Cameron Parish, south of Calcasieu on the Gulf of Mexico, is populated by about 6900 people.
Nearly 47,000 homes were damaged by Hurricane Laura alone, 16,000 of which are in need of major repairs, according to Rebecca Santana of the Associated Press. Most of the damaged homes are in Calcasieu Parish. Though there are many fewer homes in Cameron, more than half were completely destroyed, according to local government authorities.
In late September, a month after Laura, many displaced families were still living in tents. Sherry Bourque and her disabled father James Baker used the last of their money and bought two tents at Dick’s Sporting Goods and lived in them in the back yard of their destroyed home. They had to stay close to deal with the insurance adjustors and contractors.
It is not at all unusual for homeowners and renters to have lived in five or more places since Hurricane Laura hit. For example, a retired homeowner of limited income with health issues left Lake Charles for College Station Texas for the first mandatory evacuation for Laura. Her home suffered so much damage it was unlivable. So she joined with other displaced members of her family and rented a small house in Lafayette, 70 miles away. They went back and forth to meet with insurance adjustors and contractors to get estimates for repairs. The family was forced to evacuate a second time weeks later as Delta approached spending several days in Port Arthur Texas. Once the insurance people and the contractors advised her it would be spring 2021 before her home was repaired, she moved into a small home in Lake Charles which had to have its roof replaced while she was living in it. Because she has homeowner’s insurance FEMA is not helping her. She has to pay utility bills at both houses in order to keep power on in both places to slow down the mildew damage on her unoccupied damaged home. She does not even have a final estimate of what the damage is on her house from insurance company yet despite having gone through 3 different field adjustors and five different desk adjustors.
Wilfred Trahan’s home was so damaged it has to be completely gutted. He and his wife live temporarily in a hotel 70 miles away and commutes back to his job.
Homeowners insurance is helping some but not helping many. Estimates of insured loss from the hurricanes added up to nearly $10 billion. Over $5 billion in claims have been paid out so far. Over 190,000 claims for damages to homes from these two hurricanes were filed with insurance companies in Louisiana. Tens of thousands of insurance claims were closed without any payment at all. Many people had deductibles as high as $20,000, making it impossible for them to repair. The Louisiana Legislature has received many, many complaints about the way the insurance companies are operating. Complaints focus on two problems. One, insurance companies are sending out as many as six different adjustors to a single home causing communication problem. Two, there are big gaps between what insurance adjustors are estimating as replacement costs and the prices estimated by contractors.
Renters remain in deep trouble. One couple with four children renting a house in Lake Charles rode out Laura in Alabama. They returned to find standing water in their house. Red Cross sent them to Baton Rouge, which in turn sent them to Alexandria and then to New Orleans. They were then sent to Dallas briefly, then back to New Orleans. The faither took a job in Shreveport but fell off a ladder and severely hurt his back. The family returned to Alexandria and then back to New Orleans. In mid-December the Red Cross found them a house in Lafayette but only paid for the first month’s rent. They worry they are going to be evicted and have to move again. They have received nothing from FEMA. The four children have not been in one place long enough to attend school yet.
Apartments are very hard to find and when available the rents have risen. Many complexes like the 191 unit Wilshire apartments in Lake Charles were so damaged that all the residents had to leave and are not yet able to return. Homeowners with damaged properties are competing with displaced renters for the few apartments available.
In early October Red Cross reported it was providing housing to more than 12,000 evacuees. FEMA told the Washington Post it was housing nearly 8000 people were put up in hotels in Louisiana and Texas. Government agencies ended the hotel stays for many people who only got 24 hour notice on papers slipped under their room doors. They were told to return home but for many there were no homes to return to. People were taken by bus to a government center Alexandria, 100 miles away from Lake Charles, to plead their cases. If their homes are still uninhabitable, they were reassigned to another hotel. On December 9, FEMA quit providing free meals to people in hotels according to Sam Karlin at The Advocate.
Elizabeth Cook has worked as a volunteer with many of the displaced people who were evacuated to hotels in New Orleans. She collected clothing for people who had only the clothes on their backs. After FEMA cut off meals at hotels, she helped people get hot plates and small grills. She sees massive housing problems remaining. “I am working with a woman in her sixties who is finally staying in a hotel in Lafayette. She lived in her car in Lake Charles for several months until mid-December. She has never been offered a trailer and has yet to find any kind of housing. She is now searching for an apartment in Lafayette. I am assisting her in this search for housing utilizing the internet. She is under incredible stress.”
As 2020 ended some people were still living in tents. At the end of December, Fox News reported that many of Katelyn Smith’s family members are living in tents. Ms. Smith’s trailer flipped several times in the hurricane and was destroyed. Her whole family lived in tents for months and though she has moved into a donated trailer, the rest of her family remain in tents where their mobile home was. “People like us are still out here going through this situation. I think Lake Charles has been forgotten,” Smith said. “It has only been a little while and it’s going to be a long time before we are back.” Shocking photos of their living situation taken by Associated Press photographer Gerald Herbert show the family still living in third world conditions.
Calcasieu Parish Housing Authority says it will be well into 2021 before residents can get back into Lake Charles.
Small businesses are struggling from the effects of two hurricanes and the pandemic. For example, a family bakery in Lake Charles, Mrs. Johnnie’s Gingerbread House, was open for seven weeks before Laura hit, followed weeks later by Delta. It took another three months to fully reopen. Many of the local grocery stores which sold their bread are still closed. The owner told Marketplace, “The hurricane, it’s going to affect the bottom line for quite a while. So not only myself, but all the small businesses. It’s going to be tough for a while.”
Areas remain devastated. In early December, Lake Charles officials estimated that nearly 3.3 million cubic yards of debris was collected in that city alone. That is the equivalent of over 500 football fields. Nearly 2 million more cubic yards are still waiting to be picked up.
Despite thousands needing housing, FEMA reports it has only provided housing units on site in Calcasieu Parish to 469 families. No FEMA trailers at all were installed in nearby Cameron Parish as of December 2020.
With 47,000 houses damaged, 16,000 of which need major repairs, evacuees are nowhere near coming home. At year’s end, churches and volunteer organizations continue to provide supplies to homeless people.
Elizabeth Cook says the administration of assistance “has been a disaster. The entire process to help these folks has been badly coordinated. The state which is overseeing this process has allowed or looked the other way as entire families were evicted from hotels in New Orleans with nowhere to go. No one should be evicted. Louisiana already had an affordable housing problem and this has made more people homeless. It is shameful. The state of Louisiana, FEMA, the Red Cross have all caused unbearable stress for families and individuals.”
The Mayor of Lake Charles, Nic Hunter, is also quite frustrated. On December 26, 2020, the Mayor told American Press in Lake Charles that he estimated that 5% of the city’s housing stock is still offline. Hunter wrote FEMA after Christmas complaining about the slow process of getting temporary housing, saying that while thousands need help only 383 temporary housing units have been installed and “the number and pace of those installations is grossly inadequate” a performance that is “just not acceptable.”
All of this is aggravated by Covid. Over 15,000 people have tested positive in Calcasieu Parish, nearly 300 have died. On January 4, Nic Hunter, the Mayor, announced on Facebook he tested positive for Covid.
The nation justifiably spent much time focusing on the election. But it is past time to remember the thousands of families who have been left behind.