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Advocate Photo by WILL SENTELL – Julie Baxter Payer, deputy chief of staff for Gov. John Bel Edwards, tells reporters Thursday that the Shelter at Home program for flood victims has "ramped up" in recent days and officials know there are complaints that work is moving too slowly. More than 19,000 applications for the assistance have been filed.

Will Sentell

Despite criticism from some flood victims, a top aide to Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday that the Shelter at Home program has "ramped up" in recent days and is serving as a lifesaver for some families.

"We want it to feel faster," said Julie Baxter Payer, deputy chief of staff for Edwards.

"We know it feels slow," Payer said. "We recognize that. We are listening to homeowners."

Payer and others, including officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, spoke to reporters in the first of a weekly series of Thursday updates on the flood recovery.

This one was designed largely to tout the Shelter at Home program, which allows families to stay in damaged homes during repairs if the work needed to remain there costs less than $15,000.

Doing so, officials said, will boost chances that flood-damaged communities will remain intact.

Single-family homeowners are eligible for work like repairs to kitchen sinks, shower tubs, exterior door replacements and bathroom privacy walls.

About 19,000 people have applied for the assistance.

A total of 77 homes are finished and work has been done on another 140 houses.

Those are awaiting inspections, the final step.

Single-family homeowners are eligible.

Payer said the program began less than three weeks ago and is moving faster than any previous such aid after a storm.

She said state officials are in daily contact with contractors "about complaints we get."

Alice O'Conner, who lives in Baton Rouge and has been staying with her daughter and three grandchildren, praised the Shelter at Home assistance.

O'Conner said her damaged home has already gotten electrical boxes covered – a safety move – a bathroom door repaired and a microwave and hot plate.

"It is just the small things that can make a difference," she told reporters. "I am grateful for sure."

J. W. Turner,  a contractor involved in the program, said the repairs can sometimes be done in less than one day.

"The state of Louisiana has really ramped up on the time level," Turner said.

He said a typical job costs about $10,000.

The Shelter at Home program will cost about $400 million, mostly federal dollars.

How long it will take to repair the 19,333 requests is unclear.

More than 100 contractors are in the effort, and 85 are based in Louisiana.

Payer said in some cases flood victims ask for drywall work only, which cannot be done because of rules.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, announced Thursday that Baton Rouge and Lafayette will get $13 million of "sanction funds" from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Those dollars can be used for infrastructure needs, small businesses, economic development and for individual homeowners, according to Graves' office.

Only Baton Rouge and Lafayette meet the federal criteria for eligibility in the flooded areas.

"For weeks we've been in constant contact with HUD, FEMA and other federal agencies educating them about the scale of the disaster and working to identify opportunities like this one to redirect resources to the tens of thousands of Louisianans, who so badly need help in their fight to recover from the August flood," Graves said in a prepared statement.

"Every bit of assistance helps, and we're urging the state to allocate these resources directly to the impacted parishes to ensure the money goes where it is needed most," he said. 

Graves made the announcement after a conversation with HUD Secretary Julian Castro.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.