A team of New Orleans lawyers and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice fired off a series of public records requests Monday as part of their investigation into how the state and federal governments have handled the thousands of Louisiana residents displaced by Hurricanes Laura and Zeta.
Nearly five months after two major storms devastated areas in South Louisiana, thousands of residents are still displaced and living in temporary housing, and many have been forced to move five or more times as a result of inadequate response efforts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other agencies, according to a press release from the National Center for Law and Economic Justice.
However, in a press conference Tuesday, Gov. John Bel Edwards said there are under 700 Louisiana residents still in temporary housing, which is down from a peak of more than 18,000.
The New Orleans lawyers on the team include civil rights attorneys Bill Quigley and Davida Finger, both of whom teach at Loyola Law. They are calling for greater transparency and accountability from FEMA to ensure the displaced families receive safe and stable housing as soon as possible.
“There hasn’t been a comprehensive analysis of what has worked or what hasn’t worked,” Quigley said in a phone interview. “Our reps, senators and elected leaders — they’re not holding any hearings on this. They’re not pressing for investigations into anything that’s going on or not going on.”
FEMA spokesperson Michael Hart said the agency continues to seek all available options and work with survivors to find temporary housing solutions for families in Southwest Louisiana. The agency’s Direct Housing Mission will take time to complete as each installation is a construction project, so it could be summer 2021 before the final households are licensed into units, Hart said.
Hurricane Laura was a Category 4 cyclone that made landfall on Aug. 27 in Cameron Parish at near peak intensity, destroying or damaging nearly 47,000 homes and leaving residents in Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes without water, electricity and other basic services for months. The same area was struck by Hurricane Delta six weeks later. On Oct. 28, Hurricane Zeta struck Cocodrie as a Category 2. Though it impacted many surrounding areas, Zeta did not displace the large number of residents that Laura did, but it was the fifth named storm in 2020 to strike an already battered state.
With the nation’s attention shifting to the Nov. 3 presidential election and the third surge of COVID-19 cases, both state and federal elected leaders seemed to have forgotten about the people who just wanted to be back in their homes, Quigley said.
“If this had been in New Orleans, Atlanta, or Houston, this would have gotten a lot more attention and a lot more action,” Quigley said. “People are just left behind.”
In September Quigley took fast action in filing a restraining order against an apartment management company in Lake Charles that tried evicting all of its 190 tenants while they were away under evacuation from Hurricane Laura. The landlord told tenants they weren’t allowed to report to FEMA and even tried withholding their belongings unless they signed a lease termination and agreed not to discuss the matter on social media.
It was later discovered that the apartment complex sustained widespread structural damage. The city made the complex do major renovations, so the tenants ultimately had to leave by Nov. 1. About 25% of them were allowed to store their belongings at the expense of the landlord and will be allowed to move back in once renovations are finished, while the tenants who chose not to return were refunded their security deposits, Quigley said in a previous interview.
“It’s not a great outcome but better than what was happening,” he said at the time. “And (it) persuaded some other big landlords in town to make similar accommodations.”
By filing the records requests, the lawyers hope to determine how many people have been denied housing assistance, details of the government’s projected plans for housing assistance, and records related to any COVID-19 precautions taken to protect the storm survivors.
“People over in that area of the state are just not being listened to,” Quigley said. “There are thousands of people who are still in trouble over there.”
FEMA case workers do their absolute best to work with families after a disaster when many decisions are being made about recovery, and if any survivor believes they are, or were, treated unfairly, they are urged to call (800) 621-3362 or (800) 462-7585, Hart said.
“For Hurricane Laura, FEMA has put $217 million in the hands of survivors, $151 million for housing assistance and $65 million for other needs assistance,” Hart, the agency’s spokesman, said. “The Small Business Administration (SBA) has approved $584 million in low interest loans. The Public Assistance program has obligated over $66 million. Additionally, NFIP has paid more than $41 million on claims.”
The agency said it complies with all FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests in accordance with the law.