As extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, multiple disasters in southwest Louisiana during the pandemic show how unequipped disaster aid systems are during compounding events.
When Hurricane Laura hit southwest Louisiana one year ago, it set off a chain of stressful moves for Roishetta Ozane and her six children. The storm damaged the Westlake home they were renting with the help of a federal housing voucher, so they bounced between hotels and Ozane’s sister’s place before moving back into the damaged house. Finally, in May, Ozane relocated to a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the Mosswood Estates mobile home park in nearby Sulphur.
“We’re making the best of it,” said Ozane, who is an organizer for environmental group Healthy Gulf. The three bedroom trailer came fully furnished, but it’s small for the family of seven. She can see flares from nearby petrochemical facilities from the doorstep.
While dealing with her own housing nightmare, Ozane has also worked to support housing insecure people through the Vessel Project, a mutual aid group she co-founded. For 18 months after a disaster is declared, FEMA offers “direct temporary housing”—mobile homes, travel trailers, and apartments—if it determines that housing resources are so decimated no other options are available. FEMA approved the state’s request for direct temporary housing for Laura in early September last year, and the first household was licensed into a unit in mid-October, days after Hurricane Delta hit the same area.
Yet for many, like Ozane, it took much longer.
She said FEMA representatives told her she could stay until February 2022, a year and a half after Laura. But that timeline is not a guarantee. Occupants are required to continually show FEMA caseworkers they need the rent-free units and are making routine progress to find other housing; otherwise, they could be forced to move out. However, there are few affordable housing options available in southwest Louisiana due to the hurricanes, a winter storm, and historic flash flooding that ruined local housing stock. The mayor of Lake Charles—the largest city in the region—and other local officials told Southerly the scale of the housing need is so great that it cannot be met by local financial resources.
FEMA opened new housing assistance programs after each disaster, but in order to access funds, residents had to document damage from that specific event. “When there are two or more disasters declared for the same designated area, FEMA works to ensure applicants receive all eligible help while preventing duplication of federal benefits,” a FEMA spokesperson told Southerly in an email.
Housing relief tied to the COVID-19 pandemic is a separate process overseen by a different federal agency, with its own strict requirements. Many people have scrambled to meet these stipulations while reeling from the loss of their home, belongings, and community—all while trying to keep their families healthy and safe.
As climate change worsens and extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, southwest Louisiana’s plight shows how U.S. disaster aid systems are not designed to handle multiple disasters in one place, and do not account for how crises compound on one another, making it difficult for many people to find stability.
On the year anniversary of Laura, there is still no federal funding for long-term housing recovery on the table. Local elected officials have mounted a campaign calling on Congress to appropriate funding, but complicated federal disaster aid procedures mean it will likely be years before that money reaches the people who need it, if it is approved.
People like Ozane are left in the lurch: She received about $6,000 total from FEMA that she mostly used to pay for hotel rooms, but was unable to access funding from the parish’s COVID-19 Emergency Rental Assistance Program because she had not lost income as a direct result of the pandemic. Since settling into the trailer, she said she’s been contacted by four different FEMA caseworkers. She said one recently told her the move-out date would be in December—two months earlier than the agency originally said—but could be extended through February. A FEMA spokesperson told Southerly in an email that “all moveout dates are determined individually,” and the agency is “unaware of this messaging.”
Ozane told FEMA she would be “homeless with six children if I don’t find something that I can afford, or something that’s even available and big enough for my children.”
She said the caseworker told her the situation sounded like an emergency.
“That’s what we’ve been saying for months,” Ozane replied.
Hurricane Laura ripped through southwest Louisiana as a Category 4 storm on August 27, 2020—the strongest storm to hit the state since 1856 in terms of winds. Six weeks later, Hurricane Delta hit, dumping rain on the region. Together, the storms damaged about half of the housing stock in Calcasieu Parish, the most populous parish in the region; there was little time to build back before a harsh freeze in February and flash flooding in May. Pandemic-related material and volunteer labor shortages have slowed the process even more.
“The emergency management community at all levels of government—federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial—has faced historic challenges as we adapted to performing our critical missions in the COVID pandemic environment,” a FEMA spokesperson told Southerly.
The spokesperson said FEMA implemented special strategies to contact disaster survivors missing documentation, participated in multiple community resource fairs, and set up a center in Lake Charles in partnership with the state, which helped generate $600,000 in FEMA assistance to individuals.
But the window for individuals to apply for FEMA housing assistance from the disasters has closed, and other aid is timing out. Many residents’ housing instability is exacerbated by economic instability during the pandemic. Parish officials are sitting on millions of dollars of rental assistance funding from COVID-19 relief packages, but tight eligibility constraints and a staffing shortage have prevented them from disbursing it.
Of the $13 million in federal funds that Calcasieu Parish received in March 2021, only about $1.2 million has gone to struggling renters as of August 20, according to parish officials.
In July, Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter and other local leaders launched a media blitz, Help Southwest Louisiana Now, calling for supplemental disaster aid from the federal government. They’re requesting a Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery, or CDBG-DR, a common form of disaster relief administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that must be approved by Congress. These grants are typically the last federal money for housing relief and recovery communities receive.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, CDBG-DR grants funded the Road Home program, which provided cash for homeowners to rebuild. The state also received grants after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, Hurricane Isaac in 2012, and the Great Floods of 2016, which caused nearly 90% of parishes to declare disasters. They were all approved by Congress within a year.
But a year after Hurricane Laura, this funding has still not been approved.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has told the federal government the state has $3 billion in unmet needs—mostly housing—from the two hurricanes. Members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation have attempted to secure additional disaster relief funding for months, including an effort to get it into the federal infrastructure bill. A spokesperson for Sen. Bill Cassidy directed Southerly to a press briefing the senator gave on the subject; Cassidy said he has “received assurances” that aid will be appropriated soon. The office of Sen. John Kennedy did not respond to a request for comment via email.
A spokesperson for Rep. Clay Higgins, who represents a broad swath of the the state from the Texas border to Lafayette, sent Southerly a response from the congressman: “We shouldn’t have a government so complex that no one can navigate it, and while over $1.4 billion has been delivered in response to Hurricanes Laura and Delta, Southwest Louisiana continues to face extreme recovery needs that are best addressed through a supplemental disaster package.”
The population of Lake Charles shrank more than any U.S. city in 2020. Hunter told Southerly that an estimated 10,000 people are still displaced from Calcasieu Parish due to widespread damage and steeply rising rents. “If the federal government believes that local government and nonprofits can simply meet the chasm or fill the gap that’s there, they are wrong,” he said. “This is something that requires a federal response.”
If Congress approves the CDBG-DR grants, it will likely take years before residents can repair and rebuild. A 2019 HUD-funded report by the nonprofit Urban Institute found that between fiscal years 2005 and 2015, it took an average of 3.8 years from when a disaster was declared until 90% of housing program funding was spent. When emergency assistance from FEMA ends, there is often a gap until CDBG-DR funds are distributed.
A HUD spokesperson did not respond to request for comment by press time for this story.
The lack of collaboration between agencies means people slip through the cracks. Daniel Teles, one of the study authors, said FEMA, the Small Business Administration, and HUD programs often have different eligibility requirements and separate databases. A more collaborative dataset would allow individuals to be tracked through different steps of the disaster recovery process so agencies could see who they’re missing. But currently, he said, “it’s really a lot of onus on the individual to go through the application and figure things out on their own.”
Legislation introduced in Congress could streamline this process, permanently authorizing the CDBG-DR program and potentially reducing the time between disasters and recovery. But right now, “folks are basically thrown back into where they were initially, and effectively re-traumatized by this gap,” said Noah Patton, a housing policy analyst at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “It’s a multi-agency failure.”
FEMA did not answer a question from Southerly about the lack of collaboration between agencies involved in disaster recovery.
Lake Charles and Louisiana are left scraping together resources for a small-scale re-housing program, according to Hunter. City officials told Southerly in an email that project details were still being finalized and could not be publicly released yet. The parish also has a detailed long-term recovery plan created with community input, which includes more incentives to develop affordable housing and expand staffing, but it hinges on access to federal funding.
Local resources won’t be enough to make a serious dent, according to Hunter. “It would be like taking a water gun to a brush fire,” he said.
The hurricanes, winter storm, and flooding all happened during the pandemic, but parishes have been unable to use federal COVID-19 housing relief funding to address them. Calcasieu Parish received $13 million as part of two federal COVID-19 stimulus bills to aid tenants who have experienced financial hardship as a direct result of the pandemic. The money can be used to pay back-rent and utilities.
However, eligibility constraints and a staffing shortage have limited the Calcasieu Parish Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) Program, said Tarek Polite, director of human services for the parish.
Polite said when applications first opened in March, a flood of responses poured in. Many were from people impacted by the hurricanes, and they had difficulty proving their housing need stemmed from the pandemic, said Nicole Miller, disaster housing recovery specialist for the parish.
“Typically, it’s a domino effect; one thing impacts the next,” Miller said. She gave an example: Say a tree fell on someone’s house from the hurricanes and they spent their savings to remove it but they were low on cash because they’d lost their job as a result of the pandemic. “Do I say that’s hurricane related, or do I say that’s COVID related?” she said.
Earlier this year, Southerly followed Sasha Miller (no relation to Nicole) as she sought housing aid from FEMA. She was evicted after Hurricane Laura, yet held onto her job as a personal care attendant in Lake Charles as she moved between hotels and relatives’ homes. In the spring, when the parish announced it was closing its COVID-19 emergency rental assistance program, Southerly shared information about the program with Sasha Miller via text. When she called, she learned she did not qualify because she had not lost income because of the pandemic.
“It didn’t apply to the disaster that I was going through,” Sasha Miller said. “I was feeling hopeless.”
In mid-May, parish officials closed applications. “The decision was made to stop taking applications temporarily so that we could get caught up, and not necessarily give individuals false hopes,” Polite said. “We were just falling farther and farther behind.”
As of August 20, the program had received 980 applications and only 170 were approved.
The Calcasieu program re-opened on August 10 (application here). As of August 20, less than 10% of the funding allocated to the program has been disbursed. Both the staffing shortage and the slow disbursal of ERA funds are national problems particularly acute in the parish.
Polite and Nicole Miller said the parish will have several new employees dedicated solely to distributing the ERA funds beginning around Labor Day. Their sprint to distribute the funds comes at the height of hurricane season, as COVID-19 cases surge, and as the CDC eviction moratorium is lifted.
Both officials said they try to help people craft applications or access other funding, but wish ERA funds were more flexible.
“You have to be able to show that COVID impact, which is frustrating, but it’s the reality,” said Nicole Miller. “It would require an act of Congress if we wanted to change that.”
Through the Vessel Project, Ozane and her co-founder, local musician Dominique Darbonne, helped unhoused community members pay for hotel rooms and have supported those navigating application processes with multiple agencies. For many, the last year has been one long and exhausting maze of red tape, disappointment, and near-constant crisis.
“People really are, in many ways, just still sitting in this limbo,” Darbonne said. “There’s no certainty. There’s not answers. There’s just questions.”
Patricia Stukes worked for FEMA for more than a decade and has provided volunteer casework for people impacted by the hurricanes in southwest Louisiana through the Disaster Justice Network. She said the agency’s roll-out of trailers in the region took longer than normal. “It was so delayed,” she said. Even though she helped disaster victims get housing aid from FEMA when she worked for the agency, she couldn’t decipher why some residents secured trailers, and others—even with her help—couldn’t access one. “That whole process is somehow cloak and dagger,” she said.
A FEMA spokesperson said the delay was because “the housing shortage was significant both in terms of existing homes and commercial park lots for manufactured housing units.”
As of August 20, about 2,000 households were living in FEMA trailers or mobile homes, either on their own properties or at commercial sites. Sasha Miller, the Calcasieu Parish resident who was evicted, was one of them; she and her daughter moved into a FEMA trailer in June. She estimates she’s made 100 calls to FEMA since Hurricane Laura in her attempts to get housing aid, and has not gotten a clear answer about when she has to move out.
According to FEMA, the agency can extend direct temporary housing assistance beyond the 18-month mark at the state’s request, “due to the extraordinary circumstances of the ongoing recovery effort if it is in the public interest.” FEMA would then collect rent from occupants who show they still have a need for the units.
For now, though, “it’s definitely a breath of fresh air,” Sasha Miller said. But the threat of another hurricane is terrifying. “When I was younger,” she said, “it was like, every 15 years, that’s when we would get a bad hurricane.”
The back-to-back storms—and the lack of assistance from government programs after a year—changed her perspective. “I was like, wow, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” She’s starting to think about moving away.
Carly Berlin is Southerly’s Gulf Coast correspondent.
Download the PDF with housing, eviction, and mutual aid resources for Calcasieu Parish. We also created a guide in collaboration with local experts with mental health resources in southwest Louisiana. Download it here.
Read more about hurricane preparedness and recovery in southwest Louisiana
We’ve been reporting on the storms’ aftermath since August 2020. Find all the stories here.