As the state works to ramp up its flood recovery programs, some homeowners still seeking assistance a year after the historic floods told a panel tasked with overseeing efforts that they are growing frustrated with the process.
One by one, more than a dozen homeowners told the Restore Louisiana Task Force on Friday of inspection mix ups, delayed communications, confusion over qualifications and other issues.
Members of the task force diligently took notes and vowed to help work out the kinks in the process. Officials from Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration followed up one-on-one with people in the crowd.
"This will never be fast enough for any of us," said Pat Forbes, director of the Office of Community Development.
The Restore Louisiana Task Force's meeting Friday took place in Denham Springs – one of the areas hardest hit by the August downpour. Officials estimate that nearly half of the Denham Springs area homeowners who had FEMA-verified loss in the flood haven't yet taken the initial step of filling out an introductory survey to get into the pipeline for assistance, about 7,500 households.
Statewide, about 41,000 of the more than 90,000 homeowners who have losses verified by FEMA have filled out the survey at restore.la.gov.
The task force on Friday agreed to ask for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's approval to open up the homeowner recovery program to those who had flood insurance who were previously excluded. They expect it could impact some 12,000 homeowners, who will be notified if they have taken the survey.
Forbes said HUD's approval should be granted quickly.
The state is also seeking approval to increase the size of reimbursement grants for homeowners at higher income levels.
The state has received about $1.7 billion from the federal government to aid the flood recovery – the bulk of which will go toward homeowner rebuilding. Those who qualify can get reimbursements for work already done or money to make repairs that still need to be made. About $16 million has been allocated through the program so far.
Forbes said the state has decided to expand the program's eligibility because average award costs have been below original estimates and the number of people applying has been lower than expected.
The state has continued to struggle with getting people to take the initial step toward applying for funds.
Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks said one of the biggest hurdles is general pessimism.
"Across the board, every statement is the same, 'Why, when we know we won't get anything?'" he said. "That sentiment has spread to just about every homeowner in the parish."
Gov. John Bel Edwards and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson continued …
Comments from the public carried that sentiment on Friday.
Robin Williams, who lives in the Forest Ridge subdivision, told the panel that she took the survey as soon as it opened in April. In June, she was invited to take the next step: A formal application. A program issue with one inspector prompted the need for a second inspection, which took place last month.
She's been stuck in the "inspection period" since July 1 and doesn't know when that will change.
"No one can really tell me how long it takes," said Williams, a single parent. "I feel like none of the departments really know what is going on in the other departments."
She said she has been trying to work on her house on her own over the past year.
"I've depleted every cent I had," she said. "I've not paid credit card bills and mortgage bills, just to get my house livable so we have a place to go. The pipe is taking so long to get through this, I may not have a house to keep."
Others told similar stories of waiting for inspections or feeling like they were not being adequately updated about their status.
Jimmy Durbin, the former Denham Springs mayor who is co-chairing the Restore Louisiana Task Force, said he hears that a lot.
"I have heard this from people who have not heard back," he said.
Louisiana leaders are still asking the federal government for more money to aid the recovery…
The Restore Louisiana Homeowner Program is still early in its implementation. About $16 million has been distributed to date, as the program continues to be rolled out in phases.
"We are not declaring victory," said Erin Monroe Wesley, special counsel to the governor. "We are not satisfied."
State leaders have repeatedly expressed concern over the homeowners who received Small Business Administration, who can only get grants if they don't duplicate their loan amounts. Changing that would require action from the federal government. If that were to happen, Forbes said that the state expects thousands more would sign up for assistance.
Expanding the programs to those who had flood insurance, an effort of which Edwards has been a vocal supporter, means that people who were under-insured – whose insurance didn't entirely cover the rebuilding – can now seek aid from the state for the additional costs.
Paul Matherne, one of the residents who addressed the task force Friday, said he was initially rejected for the program because he had flood insurance, but his insurance wasn't enough to cover everything.
"We did a whole lot with the little bit we had from insurance. We're almost there," he said. "We're not looking for a hand out – just a hand up."