This is part one in a series of essays about a homeowner’s experience with flooding in Lake Charles and the process of trying to get federal funding through Restore Louisiana, a program to provide grant assistance to vulnerable low-to-moderate income homeowners impacted by Hurricanes Laura, Delta, Ida, or the May 2021.
What started out as a normal day on May 17, 2021 quickly turned into a nightmare. I went to work that morning expecting nothing unusual in the forecast and by midday my world was in total chaos. I live in southwest Louisiana, and rain is a normal part of our lives. So is street flooding. We know what roads not to travel during torrential downpours and we remain stationary until the streets that normally take on water are clear.
But nothing prepared me for this day.
I purchased my home in August 2000; my husband at the time and I worked hard to double up on mortgage payments so that we didn’t have to stress about a mortgage in our retirement. My home has been paid out since 2012 and I still remember the day of celebration. We had accomplished something that most people rarely get to see, while they were still young.
On that day in May, I recall taking my umbrella inside my office in Lake Charles but, thought nothing of the events that were about to unfold. Around 10:30 a.m. I received a panicked phone call from my daughter saying that the street was flooded and water was coming into the house. I looked at the pictures she had taken when she opened the front door to examine what was going on outside. My street, where the water always drained and never came up my driveway, now resembled the Mississippi River. I had her unplug all of the electronic equipment and alerted her dad whom I discovered was on high water rescue, in case he had to go get our daughter out of the house.
After using all of the sheets and towels she could find, my daughter finally gave up as she realized that there was nothing that she could do to prevent water coming into the home anymore because it was coming up through the floors. I had a pick-up truck that sits pretty high so I tried to make it home so that my daughter wouldn’t be alone—only to find the roads impassable. After several failed attempts, I went back to my office where I waited until my ex-husband got off that evening to pick me up and get me home safely. The water remained in homes and businesses across the city for hours without receding, causing millions of dollars in damage from a city that was still trying to recover from two back-to-back hurricanes in 2020, and an ice storm in early 2021.
I didn’t make it home that night until after 9:30 p.m. Water receded from my home but the streets still resembled a river; the water was not moving and didn’t seem to be going down. The only movements in the water were the ripples caused by the occasional vehicle trying to pass. Walking into my home I found soaked bedding and mud from where the water rushed in from the street. But it was the smell and odor of dampness that told me that I was going to have major issues with repairs.
I didn’t have flood insurance because my street never flooded before—but I made a vow to get quotes on flood insurance immediately the next day.
The fallout of the flood
The next day, we started cleaning up. We lost furniture that we’d had for years, clothes, and appliances that had taken on water for several hours. It was the damp, musky smell of saturated wood that prompted me and others to call our insurance company looking for quotes. I bought a dehumidifier and several boxes of Damp Rid to try to draw the moisture out of my home but the smell took a while to leave. I was told by my insurance agent that I needed an elevation report for my address to get a flood insurance quote but the area in which I lived was now deemed “high-risk” and in a 100-year flood plain. The price of insurance was supposedly going to be between $3,500 to $4,000 a year.
I reported the damage to FEMA and had an inspection in the next couple of weeks. We were still in the height of the pandemic, so I sat on the front porch with the FEMA inspector to give my report and she basically surveyed damage from the doorway and used the pictures and videos that we had to make a determination assessment.
What she assessed to be severe damage was enough to get me into the Restore Program, administered by the Louisiana Office of Community Development with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, months later and played a huge part in the grant process.
After the FEMA visit, FEMA representatives visited neighborhoods impacted by the flood and worked with the city of Lake Charles. Many of us received letters from the city stating that our homes had received significant structural damage and that we would not be allowed to do any work on our homes unless our homes were elevated and we would have to get plans approved from the planning department. I received two letters stating the same.
The start of Restore Louisiana
It was almost a year later that I first heard about the Restore Louisiana Program. I received an invitation from the community liaison office to attend a special meeting for community leaders on April 7, 2022 at Zion Tabernacle Baptist Church. This meeting was for those of us who did community work in Lake Charles, and then there was a public meeting planned that evening. The meeting had representatives from the Restore Program out of Baton Rouge and Pat Forbes, the executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development. The goal was to explain what was slated to become the Restore Louisiana program, how it worked, who qualified, and what it would cover.
The meeting room was packed, with many people not having seats. The attendance was a clear indicator of the need still prevalent in our community. Those that arrived early were able to get handouts that noted the early specifications of the program but I listened intently to what was being conveyed. The initial plan had not yet been approved by HUD so this meeting was just to inform us of the state’s plan and parameters of what they hoped the program would look like.
During the presentation, Forbes stated that the flood of 2021, ice storm, as well as Laura and Delta were included in the Restore Louisiana Program. Forbes mentioned that there were over 2,300 residents affected by the May flood and that those of us in a 100-year flood plain would not be rehabilitated or rebuilt but would be bought out with enough money to relocate to another area. This made sense because according to the FEMA flood maps, the likelihood of my home flooding regularly was now higher than average. This also was in line with the letters previously received from the city. This number would increase, along with the number of significant weather events, due to climate change.
We were told that there was a comment period in which we could present any concerns to the state that would be presented to HUD. My only concern was that remedy would be swift and that the municipalities obtaining funds would oversee the program making it fair and equitable for everyone.
I left the meeting armed with program handouts and knowledge. I felt like residents were finally going to receive the help and assistance that they needed. I knew that I would be in Phase 3 of the program because I was able to live in my home so I was not considered vulnerable and stayed on top of the program to monitor its progress.
The program went through several modifications and I didn’t hear back from them again until August 25, 2022 when I was contacted by an inspector and my caseworker Mr. Darrell Johnson. I heard from the Restore home inspector first and we set an appointment for September 1, 2022 for him to come to my home to inspect it for damage. I was told that the process would take three hours and that I would have to be present. It did indeed take three hours, and consisted of him taking several pictures in every room, outside of my home, the roof, etc. He said he would forward the report to my caseworker within two weeks. The day of my inspection, my caseworker called to introduce himself and go over program particulars; I told him that my home had been inspected already and that he should receive the report within two weeks. While going through the inspection, I was asked several questions about a variety of things he noted; I saw why it was imperative the homeowner is present.
My caseworker kept in touch throughout the next month and I had to look back in my calendar to give him the date of my home inspection because he said he never received my report. During the time that we were communicating, they verified that the home was indeed mine, paid out, insurance current, and had my tax returns from 2021. I also had my home assessed for lead paint because it is an older home and it came back positive for both the outside and inside. It wasn’t long after my caseworker received my reports that I received a call from Johnson to discuss my award determination.
The grant process
I was apprehensive because by this time so many people were being denied funding, I automatically assumed that I was going to be one of them. Johnson started by saying he was looking at my award amount and felt that I would be pleased and walked me through the next steps. If not denied program funding, you have three courses of action: accept the grant, consult with your caseworker further, or appeal the award. All four of my reports were listed with findings from the inspectors and you are able to download your reports for safe keeping.
I listened intently, but I already knew that I was going to print the reports and go over them myself. I was also concerned because I knew that my home had two areas where the foundation was cracked and the possibility of it being cracked elsewhere was significant because water came up through the floor during the flood. I also knew that the cost of materials and labor was high and felt as if my home would not be fixed properly if I had to cut corners and choose.
I wondered what happened to the plan of not repairing or rebuilding homes in flood plains, or, at the very least, elevating them. Early in the application process I selected that I would be responsible for my own rehabilitation because I had my own contractor that I trusted. After speaking with him, I knew that with the high cost of materials, I wouldn’t be able to use someone that I trusted and would have to take a chance with a state contractor. Wanting answers and not willing to just accept what was being offered, I checked the circle for a consultation in lieu of accepting the award.
Prior to my consultation, I submitted a series of questions, including:
1. Is there a flood insurance assistance program available as was discussed at the community meeting?
2. How many people actually benefited from the appeal process?
3. How was the award funding calculated?
I also let Johnson know that before I decided to accept or appeal my awards, I wanted to attend a community meeting hosted by two police jury members. I wanted to attend to get official information from a Restore representative in person.
More questions than answers
The meeting was packed, and we learned a few important things about the program: To be approved for the Restore Louisiana program, a homeowner would need to have received funding from FEMA and have significant to severe property damage. Assistance amounts had to fall within the parameters of $3,500 to $8,500 and above to be accepted into Restore. The state was trying to work through many of the homeowner complaints that they were denied FEMA assistance or did not receive a FEMA inspection due to the fact that the visits occurred during the pandemic and weren’t done thoroughly. Restore now had a local office in town to assist homeowners: Suite 306 at the Magnolia Life Building. The representative said they might go door to door to try to encourage homeowners to apply and try to remedy issues with those that had previously been denied. (Read these notes to learn more about what the representative said.)
My home repair choices
My caseworker and I reviewed my reports thoroughly and he explained to me how the calculations for the award amount were determined. When I brought up my concern about my foundation, we sifted through the reports to find that the inspector did note the cracked foundation in my bathroom but did not note the damage on the opposite side of my home. We addressed the cost of materials and I discovered that the award amount was based on the amount that state contractors would pay for materials to repair my home and not a private contractor. State contractors must complete the work done within the parameters of the award amount with several inspections throughout the course of the work.
I could have my home torn down and rebuilt at a higher elevation if I could get a FEMA elevation certificate, a document from the city or parish saying the same, or prove that my foundation was cracked beyond repair by hiring a structural engineer which could cost thousands of dollars.
Once you receive notification of the grant determination you have 30 days to accept or appeal. Mr. Johnson got approval to leave me in consultation status because I was diligently working on my case. I still must make a decision within my 30 days. My caseworker also shared with me that, if I accepted the award as is and the contractors began working and discovered other issues during the repairs, the contractors could go to the state to ask for a modification of my grant.
After my consultation, I immediately called my police jury member, Eddie Earl Lewis, Jr. and explained to him the documentation needed from the parish about home elevation. The next day, he went to receive my elevation certificate while having me on speaker phone. We discovered that because I lived in the city limits, I had to get my certificate from the city.
Navigating the city requirements
The next day, I went to the city and asked about the elevation certification. After giving my address and receiving two letters from the city stating that no work could be done on my home without the plan being approved by them and my home elevated, I found out that the city did not have any FEMA elevation certificates from my neighborhood or address.
The office said they could give me a flood zone verification letter because that’s what they had been giving everyone. The office had been ordering Base Flood Elevation Determinations for different addresses but had not done any for Flood Zone A, where my home is located. I was told to email Doug Burguieres, director of planning and development. I did this immediately, and emailed my Restore caseworker my flood zone verification letter.
The following day I received an email stating that what I was requesting was a service the city did not offer. He also stated that I would have to hire a surveyor or engineer to get what I needed at my own cost. So far this took up three days of leg work, while the clock is ticking on my last 10 days.
Still in limbo
I contacted Reddoch Survey, a surveying company I used before, and in inclement weather they went out. I scanned every letter and correspondence sent to me from different entities to prove my case and am now at a point of waiting until after the holidays to see if I can get an appointment with a structural engineer to check my foundation.
I made the decision to seek out a structural engineer after being told by my Restore caseworker that if I decide to appeal my award there is a probability that the amount of the award may be decreased.
This is why many people are frustrated, angry, and giving up: they accept an amount that they know won’t be enough or just leave the program. One thing is certain, I won’t accept the bare minimum and will ensure one way or another, I will be made whole again.
Some things I’ve learned that will hopefully help you if you’re also navigating this process:
- Take the time to ask the questions, talk to your elected officials and if all else fails consult with an attorney.
- Attend meetings: by attending meetings, I know just as much as my caseworker, which made it possible for me to ask the right questions.
- Articulate what your local government is doing, don’t assume that Restore knows because they don’t.
- Ask your elected officials for help.
- Keep all correspondence, emails of anything discussed, letters from the city
- Be ready to wait a little longer. We’re almost three years after the storms and more houses are coming down than going up. People are walking away from homes because of frustration from fighting insurance, Restore, and local officials.
- If you find yourself in need of flood zone documentation to aid your appeal, I am adding the links to the City of Lake Charles Flood Ordinance that tells you the specifications for repairs and rebuilds. The City of Lake Charles Flood Brochure also has useful information.