Financial Strain of Flood Recovery

Oct 26, 2016

Back in August, just after the historic floods, Louisiana officials expressed concern that proposed federal and state disaster recovery funds might not be enough. With deadlines for flood assistance programs passed, or looming, affected residents are learning the math of getting back on their feet.


It's just after dinnertime on a Thursday night in Northeast Baton Rouge.  An ice cream truck loops it’s signature song as it turns onto Mora Drive. But nobody comes running out their front door. 63-year-old Karen Wilkinson gazes down the street she’s lived on for the past 30 years.

"It's amazing to hear the ice cream man come, and there's not a child on the street anymore, not a child."

Rows and rows of suburban ranch style homes with modest front yards look normal. But that’s only because mountains of debris are gone. Two months ago the Amite River crashed through this area, leaving 5 feet of water behind. It looks like the Rapture hit this subdivision.

"They're not coming back..."

Karen Wilkinson says the woman across the street already took the $20,000 being offered by predatory buyers to leave.

Karen and her husband Larry aren’t sure what they are going to do yet.

Looking for advice, they head to a nearby bar on a Tuesday night with around ten other flood affected residents. The event is hosted by a local loan company. Brandon Kelly of EFCU Financial is running through the ABCs of flood recovery.

"The sad thing about this situation is, we're all having to make very hard decisions with our money."

The Wilkinson’s nod in agreement. They’re $70,000 in debt after having to replace three cars and some other necessities destroyed in the flood.

Monica Taylor from the Louisiana Attorney General’s office takes the microphone.

She warns her audience about contractor fraud. People who promise to help families rebuild, and then run away with the money.

"Everybody know how to take a selfie? I want you to take a selfie with your contractor."

The Wilkinsons and other impacted homeowners get some business cards from their hosts, and head home to temporary trailers, apartments, and hotels to discuss.

On a Saturday morning, aid workers, loan officers, small business advisors, and state and federal disaster agencies set up information tables. A handful of flood survivors trickle in with questions.

"What can I do to get my roof fixed, and seek guidance?"

34-year-old Erica Williams’ house didn’t flood, but her roof caved in after the torrential rains. That sent Williams and her 10 year-old daughter on a tour of relatives homes and hotels to sleep, and churches for hot meals.

"Even though I have a house it still feels like I'm homeless."

Williams makes $7.25, minimum wage, as a custodian at Southern University. That isn’t enough to fix her flood damaged car, repair her roof, and pay a growing stack of bills.

FEMA spokesperson Darrel Habish says the amount of federal recovery aid isn’t the key, it’s what you do with it.

"If you need a shelter and you're a renter, or a homeowner, and this is for an apartment, that's what this should be spent on."

26-year-old Kayla Smith leaves the resource fair after meeting with FEMA. Her three young children trail behind her.

She spent her $3,000 FEMA grant already. It didn’t go very far.

"You gotta buy everything over, clothes, shoes, uniforms for the kids, food, everything buying over."

Smith says she wasn’t careless with her grant, things cost more now. That includes her rent, which went up 200 dollars since she had to move. Enough of a difference that she still hasn’t been able to afford new beds for her kids. In this post flood world, things just aren’t adding up.

 

This story has been brought to you by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, and made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.