Recovery stymied for Louisiana’s bayou communities after Hurricane Ida

Housing remains pressing challenge in Lafourche, Terrebonne

By: - October 14, 2021 7:00 am
Fate of housing in Southeast Louisiana still unknown

The Galliano home of Paula Bermudez is one of a few in the area undergoing repairs on Oct. 5, 2021 — six weeks after Hurricane Ida. Bermudez is staying in a small camper in her backyard. She said she was fortunate enough to have the money to buy the camper. (Wes Muller/LA Illuminator)

Under a tent at the front of South Lafourche Veteran’s Memorial Park, Lloyd Griffin and a few volunteers recently gave away hot meals to several hundred residents and workers who line up for lunch every day. It is one of the few sources of food in Galliano since Hurricane Ida barreled through the bayou community more than six weeks ago. 

Griffin rode out the storm in his house, which sustained some wind and water damage. He said he collected rainwater and used a portable generator at night to help keep cool. It was more than three weeks before power and water were restored.

Lafourche Parish residents are used to riding out hurricanes, but Ida was different, he said. Packing wind gusts of more than 170 miles per hour, the storm roared ashore at Port Fourchon Aug. 29, leaving a path of destruction in southeast Louisiana and taking with it an estimated 13,000 homes between Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. 

“In 57 years, I’ve never seen one this bad,” Griffin said.

Now six weeks later, thousands of residents — some of whom are sleeping in tents and makeshift shelters — have still not received direct emergency housing from FEMA. And those who were not displaced to other parts of the state and remain close to home have limited access to grocery stores and medical clinics.

Fate of housing after Hurricane Ida remains uncertain
Galliano resident Lloyd Griffin works at the South Lafourche Veteran’s Memorial Park serving meals to residents after Hurricane Ida. (Wes Muller/LA Illuminator)

While the nation’s eyes were focused upon metro New Orleans as the storm struck on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina 16 years ago, residents along south Louisiana’s bayou communities say that they matter as the area serves as a hub for the oil and gas industry and generations of fishers supply a significant portion of the nation’s seafood. Particularly, Port Fourchon is a gateway for approximately 18% of the nation’s oil supply, according to the parish website. 

“All those boats going back and forth from the (Gulf of Mexico) rigs are serviced here,” said Griffin, who made a career out of cleaning industrial vessels and tankers as they returned from offshore drilling operations. 

Louisiana House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee told the Illuminator in September: “I’m just really frustrated that we’re not getting enough attention from really anyone to see that the problem down here is getting pretty critical. Federal government, FEMA and HUD need to act immediately.’’

A difficult road

The road to recovery looks difficult.

In the weeks after Ida made landfall, the state relocated more than 3,000 evacuees into emergency shelters and FEMA placed about 25,000 in hotel rooms in Shreveport, Texas, Mississippi and other such areas far from the damage. But a number of residents remained behind, either unwilling or unable to evacuate. They, along with state and local officials, expected the housing situation would have improved at least somewhat 30 days after the storm. 

On Sept. 20, Magee, R-Houma, called attention to the plight of his constituents sleeping in tents and makeshift structures built out of rubble in Lafourche and Terrebonne. He lamented that FEMA officials had told him it would be another 30 days before they could send housing resources like trailers and portable units to the area, according to previous reporting by the Illuminator

Aware of the situation, Gov. John Bel Edwards traveled to Washington D.C. that week and implored federal officials to hasten FEMA’s response in Louisiana. As another week passed with no improvement to the housing situation, Edwards announced Oct. 4 that the state would launch its own temporary housing program. 

The governor obtained approval from FEMA to use federal funds for the program, which is the first of its kind in the nation, and immediately began purchasing travel trailers. The state launched a website and began signing up residents on the day of the announcement.

“FEMA is not doing any of it,” Magee said. “But FEMA is allowing the state, for the first time ever in its history, to provide (the temporary housing), and they will reimburse the state for these units.”

Through the governor’s new sheltering program, Magee said he expects 100 temporary homes — such as travel trailers, hotels, base camps, crew barges or recreational vehicles (RVs) — to be provided to Terrebonne Parish by the end of the week, and 10,000 temporary homes to reach the area by Mid-November.

But housing isn’t the only issue that is impacting the recovery.

While utility services have returned to Lafourche Parish, Galliano’s lone grocery, Galliano Food Store, is still closed. Aside from the hot meals available at the veteran’s park, residents would have to travel seven miles north to nearby Cut Off to a Walmart Supercenter. The same holds true for building supplies. Two hardware stores in Cut Off, Melaco Sisters and Renovations Hardware, are open for business, as is Golden Meadow’s True Value Hardware.

Griffin said his grandkids have still not returned to school. All South Lafourche schools are reopening with classes beginning Oct. 18. The rest of the parish’s schools restarted either late last month or in early October. Virtual learning is available to students who request it, as well as uniforms from their school’s principal. 

Medical services have started rebounding. The Terrebonne General Health System is still working on expanding services, with the system’s cancer center and specialized clinics reopened.

In Chauvin, where people are still struggling to find housing and clear away storm damage, the system’s clinic is now able to provide COVID-19 testing, internal medicine services and pediatric care, among others.

The Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center in Houma plans on restarting inpatient services and surgical procedures Friday. Data released by Ochsner Health last week showed around 64,860 clinic visits delayed, with 58% of clinic visits rescheduled. 

Fate of housing after Hurricane Ida remains unknown
Blue tarps still cover many roofs in Larose, La., six weeks following Hurricane Ida. (Wes Muller/LA Illuminator)

More than 7,000 surgeries, endoscopies and other procedures had to be delayed due to the hurricane, and around 1,500 employees received housing assistance, staying in hotels across the state. 

Mike Hulefeld, Oschner executive vice president, said the reopening of clinics was going well during an Aug. 29 press release. 

“Not all patients are ready to fully come back. They’re dealing with housing issues and personal issues and other challenges that limit some of them. But we have the access and capacity to care for all patients at this point,” Hulefeld said. 

A slow start

For residents that are trying to fix their homes, their options for help appear limited.

Within walking distance from the Veteran’s Memorial Park on Old Safari Heights Road, Paula Bermudez is one of the few residents who has started repairs on her home. A crew of workers from Black Magic Construction out of Florida, was almost finished gutting Bermudez’s house last week. Every inch of her house from floor to ceiling sustained water damage, and her wind-torn roof has been temporarily patched with tarps. Except for a single potted house plant that somehow managed to survive, none of her furnishings, fixtures or household items were salvageable. 

Lloyd Dixon, who owns Black Magic and works as a subcontractor for Servicemaster, said his crew of three other men has been living in a New Orleans hotel for the last month and driving to Galliano and other far-south areas of the state every day for work. 

Dixon, who did storm restoration work in Lake Charles for eight months after Hurricane Laura, said he already has more than 20 other houses on his waiting list. He said he hasn’t seen a single other company doing residential work in the area.

“We’re the only company we’ve seen out here,” Dixon said.

While workers repair her home, Bermudez is staying in a small camper in her backyard. She said she was fortunate enough to have the money to buy the camper. Some of her neighbors have not yet begun repairs. 

However, Bermudez said she is taking a risk by starting the work because as of Oct. 5 she still hadn’t heard back from her insurance company, Ally Trust, and doesn’t know how much money they will provide or if they’ll even approve her claim. 

“They’re not helping like they’re supposed to help,” Bermudez said.

Bermudez’s setup, with a small trailer next to her house as it’s being rebuilt, is what state officials like Magee envision the temporary housing program can provide for the area.

Fate of housing remains unknown six weeks after Hurricane Ida
Lewis Murray, a crew member of Black Magic Construction, cleans up after gutting a house in Galliano on Oct. 5, 2021, following Hurricane Ida. (Wes Muller/LA Illuminator)

Magee said the idea is to get people close to their homes so that they can start to rebuild. Otherwise, he fears, residents will be less likely to return the longer FEMA keeps them in out-of-state hotel rooms.

“Once residents move, they’re not coming back,” Magee told the Illuminator last month. “And we already have a problem in this state about migration to begin with. This is the worst possible scenario.” 

However, for renters, some cannot return as landlords often evict residents in order to renovate apartments and housing complexes after storms. Maxwell Ciardullo, the director of policy and communications at the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, said residents who are now homeless because of Ida face a multitude of barriers preventing them from finding new housing.

The CDC’s moratorium on evictions ended at the beginning of August, and an attempt to reinstate the moratorium was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Also, rental assistance programs continue to be slow in getting money to those who need it, as tens of thousands of families are still on waitlists, Ciardullo said.

Louisiana has received more than $500 million in federal money to help struggling renters and landlords in separate allocations since December 2020. Payouts have been slow and the number of Louisiana residents receiving assistance has been small.

As of Thursday, the state has paid out $42 million between 7,800 struggling Louisiana households struggling to pay their rent, according to Division of Administration Assistant Commissioner Desiree Honore Thomas. Local governments have paid out $70 million between 15,000 households.

And rents have jumped significantly in southeast Louisiana, where 57% of the state’s renters live, due to a shortage of apartments. “That means that people who are evicted will have a much harder time finding a new home and are more likely to experience homelessness,” Ciardullo said.

Magee said his district has been working to provide free legal aid and attorneys for residents at risk of eviction. He said he would like to reach out to the Bar Association or organizations that provide less expensive counsel and connect at-risk residents with those organizations.

Staff writers JC Canicosa and Rachel Mipro contributed to this report.

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Wes Muller
Wes Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Much of his journalism has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and coverage of municipal and state government. He has received recognitions including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus and a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his two sons and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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