Thousands of Louisiana flood victims are still living in hotels as part of FEMAs Temporary Shelter Assistance program.
On the list of FEMA relief options, the hotel vouchers are meant as a short-term solution -- but four months later, it's still the only option for many people who can't return home.
Paul Varnado sits out on a patio with a few close friends, smoking a Sunday morning cigarette. To prove how well he knows his cohort, he goes down the line and lists everybody’s brand.
"I’m a Kool smoker, Misty’s, Kools. Ms Debbie smokes Doral Menthols," he says.
The foursome takes in the December sun in a mixture of makeshift pajamas and Sunday chore outfits. They were up celebrating a birthday the night before. You’d think they’ve known each other for years, but it’s only been around 4 months.
"The water just came out of nowhere, I got up in the middle of the night, to get antacids, and there was four feet of water in the street."
Paul Varnado was in his Baton Rouge sub-division when he realized August’s epic floodwaters were on his doorstep. Around 5 feet of water entered his two-story home. He woke up his teenage daughters, young son, and mother in law, and told them to pack what they could and wait on the 2nd floor. His wife was safe at work. They escaped in a boat, and wound up staying at a hotel.
"They said they weren’t going to accept FEMA so we was paying out of pocket," Varnado says.
Hotels voluntarily participate in FEMA’s Transitional Shelter Assistance program. After running up a few thousand dollar room tab in a few weeks, Varnado and his clan got lucky and found a place that did take FEMA vouchers. That’s how he wound up sitting HERE, at the Microtel off of Interstate 10 and Siegen Lane, with smoking buddies Laura, Kelly, and Rose - all fellow flood affected locals.
"One day we had 20% occupancy, and within 45 minutes I was up to 100% occupancy, and I wished I had more rooms so I could shelter more people," explains Microtel manager Debbie Aulis.
Back in August there were around 130 flood displaced people at her hotel. There are STILL around 80, four months later.
"Pretty much everybody that’s staying here lost everything," Aulis says. She didn’t intend for her Microtel to become a college dorm, with her as the Resident Advisor. Before August she normally spent 2 days at her business, and the rest of the month at home in Florida. But her routine changed pretty abruptly last summer.
"The first couple of days I was here I was scared to death, I was walking in here to a house full of people and now I realize, they’re my best friends now. They’d do anything for me."
Aulis now lives full-time in a room at her hotel. Tonight she’s cooking chili for 30 people, she says there’s a group meal 2 or 3 nights a week. It’s a home cooked meal so they don’t have to go out and eat McDonald’s every day.
Life at the Microtel has its challenges. People wind up eating a lot of fast food, because they don’t have formal kitchens. They have to drive to do things like laundry. And kids struggle with the confines of living in a room, instead of a house.
One young boy flies through the hotel lobby, past a couple of FEMA caseworkers on laptops. He uses a blanket for a cape, pretending he’s a superhero, happily proclaiming, “I’m Batman!"
FEMA staff are gathering updates from displaced families around Louisiana to see how close people are to returning. Everybody’s situation is a little different. Some of the Microtel guests are weeks away from moving back to their homes and apartments. Others are looking for new places to live.
Back in front of the hotel, 50 year-old mother of two Rose Williams takes a drag from a cigarette. There’s still no timetable on repairs for her subdivision home. She says she gets up at 4:30am every weekday to make sure her teenage daughters can get to their same schools, a longer commute since the family was displaced. Williams says her oldest daughter is struggling with anxiety, "because she’s so worried as to why we’re still here."
Williams says it’s hard to not have the answers. She says her family won’t be ready to move home in January. She lost her job after the flood as well, so money is tight.
Even though Williams and the rest of the flood affected families she now calls neighbors desperately want to
move out of the Microtel, they all say they can’t imagine not having this place, and it’s caretaker, Debbie Aulis, in their lives.
"There will be a reunion. We’re going to come back and have reunions each year. We will never forget this lady. Never."
Microtel manager Debbie Aulis plans to keep living at the hotel through January. She’s hoping most of her flood affected guests will be able to return home by then.
This story has been brought to you by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, and made possible with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.