BATON ROUGE – Storm victims spill out of the waiting rooms, some clutching water-stained documents, others with the long stare of those stricken by disaster, each with a story of personal tragedy about the Louisiana flood’s devastation to their homes and their lives.
The line for the makeshift Federal Emergency Management Agency recovery center started to gather before the facility opened Monday at a substance abuse treatment site run by a local Baptist church. The stream of traffic has been steady ever since.
Edward Shaw, 62, has been staying at a local Motel 6 since last week’s flooding inundated the house he was renting, the water rising to the top of the front door. He lost his furniture and his car, and hasn’t heard from his landlord about when the house might be repaired.
FEMA started covering his motel costs Sunday, though he’s not sure for how long.
“I hope to God FEMA give me enough so I can start all over again,” Shaw said.
And if that doesn’t happen? “You just keep on praying,” he said.
The long, hard slog of recovery is underway across south Louisiana, after a storm that began Aug. 12 dumped as much as 2 feet of rain in some areas over 48 hours, causing catastrophic flooding.
At least 13 deaths have been attributed to the flooding, and more than 60,000 homes were damaged by the storm, which has been described as the worst disaster since Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
President Barack Obama planned to visit the area Tuesday.
In hard-hit neighborhoods, people spent their weekend gutting homes in brutal heat, ripping out water-logged carpet and flooring, stripping out walls and insulation and sifting through personal belongings to determine if anything was salvageable. Piles of water-damaged furniture, clothes, photographs and toys filled curbs, as shell-shocked residents discarded nearly everything they owned.
At least $110 million in agriculture was damaged by the storm, a figure likely to grow, according to the an estimate released Monday by the LSU AgCenter.
In Ascension Parish, residents in some areas were still dealing with high water. Officials said they are waiting for water levels to drop so they can make a cut in the levee that would allow the water to drain. About 19,000 homes had water in them about 40 percent of the parish’s total housing stock.
The risk of further flooding has finally lessened, and the focus has shifted fully to recovery.
Disaster food stamp aid was being distributed in eight parishes, and the number of people staying in shelters had dwindled to about 2,800. Schools in some damaged parishes begin reopening this week. Debris removal started this weekend in heavily-damaged Baton Rouge neighborhoods.
Flood insurance adjusters were on the ground, assessing property damage.
Roy Wright, FEMA’s deputy associate administrator for insurance, said more than 25,000 claims already have been filed with the National Flood Insurance Program and $15 million in advance payments had been distributed to homeowners to help people begin repairs.
“We want to make sure they have the resources they need immediately to muck out their homes, even as we go through the rest of the adjustment process,” Wright said.
Large numbers of flood-damaged homes weren’t covered with flood insurance.
Ariana Galindo, a Spanish teacher from Baton Rouge, is one of the many residents who didn’t live in a designated flood zone that required flood insurance coverage, so she never bought it. Galindo’s home was hit with 2 feet of water, and she and her husband were staying temporarily at her aunt’s house.
“I lost everything, and I just called my homeowners’ insurance and they told me that they don’t cover anything because the insurance that I’m paying for doesn’t cover flood,” Galindo said Monday, waiting with dozens of others in the FEMA assistance center. “I need some help to repair my house.”
Five such recovery centers had opened so far and more were planned operating seven days a week. About 110,000 people across south Louisiana already had registered for federal disaster assistance, most signing up online.
FEMA aid, however, isn’t expected to be enough.
“This is really the first step in your recovery process. We can’t get you back to where you were before the storm, but we can help you get to a safe, secure and sanitary environment,” said FEMA spokeswoman Renee Bafalis.
Burnell Williams Sr. and his wife, Lois, lost their entire house in St. Bernard Parish to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After that monster storm, they moved to Baton Rouge and that home was hit with 4 feet of water in last week’s flooding.
“We lost everything in the house,” Burnell Williams said. “This is the second time for us.”