This story is being updated as we learn more information and access documents/data.

Government officials have released many press releases about disaster recovery funding coming to Calcasieu Parish. But where did the money go? We searched hundreds of records from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to find out. 

For a parish ravaged by frequent natural disasters, recovery in 2022 still looks like a patchwork of blue tarped roofs, ongoing insurance fights, and long waits for federal and state government relief. Hurricane Laura hit southwest Louisiana in August 2020. Just a month-and-a-half later, Hurricane Delta decimated communities already in recovery in Lake Charles and surrounding cities in Calcasieu Parish. If that wasn’t enough, we experienced severe winter storms the following February, and then more storms, tornadoes, and then flooding in May 2021. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office for Coastal Management estimates that Hurricane Laura was the most destructive hurricane since 1859 and was the most expensive storm of 2020, costing $19 billion in damages.

There are government programs available to help with recovery, but it can take months, or even years, to receive assistance. FEMA funds local governments, tribes, and nonprofits through public assistance grants after federally declared disasters. The agency took five months to begin reimbursements, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has yet to issue any checks. 

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Documenters in Calcasieu Parish publish meeting notes and information on budgets and public records relevant to disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

The Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Program (CDBG-DR) is accessed through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in collaboration with state and local governments, who distribute the funds to applicants. These grants are meant to fill in the gaps left after insurance and FEMA recovery dollars. In Louisiana, the state passes CDBG-DR allocated funds to the Office of Community Development. Southwest Louisiana received $600 million in CDBG-DR allocations in September 2021, and another $450 million in March 2022. These funds can be used for housing (new construction or rehabs), infrastructure including repair of roads, bridges, water, and wastewater facilities, and community development like job training, business development, and commercial district improvement. 

As reported by documenter Carl Ambrose in October, Lake Charles City Council approved Hunt, Guillot & Associates, a company that does disaster recovery, pipeline, construction, program management, and engineering in Louisiana and other states, to oversee the CDBG-DR grants. 

The program has a considerably long process, as HUD is required to get authorization from Congress before proceeding. Applications are accepted two to three years post-disaster for up to nine years, and funds are distributed within a few months of application to a few years. There is also a lengthy hearing process for the grants and, if there are any amendments, the process starts all over again. As reported by Mike Smith for The Times-Picayune | The Advocate and ProPublica, HUD officials say that the delay is exacerbated by a program with no clear, consistent source of funds. 

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has said the long process of accessing these allocations slows down recovery, that the requirements are inconsistent, and that the full process lacks transparency. Because of the long path to payouts, we have still not received money from these grants.

FEMA began paying Calcasieu Parish government agencies and select private nonprofit organizations over $780 million in reimbursements beginning in January 2021, five months after Hurricane Laura, and the money is still coming our way. Funds were distributed for both emergency work such as debris removal and protective measures, and permanent work including repairs to roads and bridges, water control facilities, public buildings, public utilities, recreational areas, and state management. 

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The top five recipients make up almost 90% of all reimbursements. Almost $357 million, or about 46%, went to the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury and was primarily used for debris removal. The first reimbursement we found from FEMA was on January 21, 2021 in the amount of approximately $51 million for debris removal. The last recorded reimbursement we were able to locate was in September 2022, again for debris removal, and in the amount of $27 thousand. Calcasieu Parish School Board received about $171 million, including $126 million on emergency protective measures and $38 million on buildings. Emergency protective measures include emergency communications, evacuations, mass care, shelter operations, temporary generators, essential needs such as water, food, ice, and more. The City of Lake Charles was given $106 million. The City of Sulphur has utilized approximately $30 million since February 2021. The Society of the Roman Catholic Church of the Diocese of Lake Charles has received almost $21 million, the majority of which was used for protective measures. See our map of FEMA reimbursements for more detailed information on what was spent in each category for the top five recipients in Calcasieu Parish.

Below is an interactive graphic I made to show the relationship between FEMA and the top five funding recipients. This data is updated through Oct. 21, 2022. Zoom out to see how they’re connected, and click “next” to find descriptions of each recipient and why they received money. If you click each item/line, you’ll find sources from the database, dates, and other public information.

All this data leaves us with some questions:

Why is money still being announced? All of the FEMA money being announced is being reimbursed for work already completed. How much longer will the process go on?

Who is now managing HUD’s Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program for the City of Lake Charles? Read notes from the last Lake Charles City Council meeting and follow us to stay updated.

Is there a place to easily see how the funds have been utilized so far? Yes, there is a place to see the payouts, but it is a time consuming task to do so. We used FEMA’s Daily Public Assistance Grant Awards Activity for the reporting in this story. You can access those datasets here.

We’ll be updating this page as we learn more. Sign up for Southwest Louisiana Journal newsletter for future coverage of disaster recovery funding.

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