Mechael Williams was smiling from ear-to-ear Wednesday morning as she walked around a nearly empty sound stage at Celtic Studios — one of the shelters she and her three children were forced to call home for more than a month after August's destructive flooding.
She was among the handful left who had to clear out of the Stage 5 sound stage the Celtic Studios as the American Red Cross worked to shutter its last remaining shelter in the region.
"It feels so good," Williams, 31, said of moving on after six weeks of living in Red Cross shelters at the Baton Rouge River Center and Celtic Studios. "It was stressful at times. And I was complaining. I just didn't know what to expect (but) I kept telling my kids something good would happen for us."
Nearly 300 displaced flood victims left the shelter they've called home for nearly a month i…
Williams and her children lost everything in the flood. They were living with her sister at the time.
Her new home is in mid-city Baton Rouge. She said Wednesday she was surprising her children with it after they returned home from school that afternoon.
Not everyone was as fortunate as Williams to find permanent housing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But everyone did have somewhere to go when the shelter closed for good Wednesday afternoon, officials said.
Many were forced into more temporary solutions — like staying in hotels (local and out of state), apartments, with family members or manufactured housing provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — as they struggle to rebuild their lives.
Nancy Malone, spokeswoman for American Red Cross' Louisiana region, said the disaster relief agency spent the past few weeks aggressively trying to find solutions for flood victims through partnerships with state and federal agencies as well as local non-profits and volunteer groups.
"Emergency shelters are really only meant for an emergency time frame. These are not meant to be long-term solutions," Malone said Wednesday morning as the final cots were broken down at Celtic. "However, this is not the Red Cross ending services. Anyone who needs help can still call 855-224-2490 for assistance."
As of midnight Tuesday, Malone said, there were only 30 people still living at the Celtic Studio shelter. When shelter operations were transferred from the Baton Rouge River Center to Celtic on Sept. 15, officials said about 280 displaced flood victims were still without a place to live.
Immediately following the August floods, nearly 11,000 people were housed at about 70 shelters in East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension parishes.
The Celtic Studio's shelter's shutdown came two days after Red Cross faced criticism from the Governor's Office over its response to the recent disaster.
Count Gov. John Bel Edwards among the many Louisianans who were dissatisfied with how the Am…
After the flood, many complained to local news outlets and shared stories on social media about volunteers and donations being turned away at Red Cross shelters despite escalating needs.
They complained that shelters appeared to be understaffed. And photographs of meager food rations served by the Red Cross — contrasted against plentiful hot plates served by other good Samaritans — were widely shared and criticized online.
After meeting with the governor's staff on Monday, Red Cross officials agreed to draft a plan addressing how food is served and how private donations are accepted. It will also address minimum staffing levels and how the Red Cross will take over managing shelters after local governments open them.
The lack of affordable housing options in the region provided the biggest challenge for the team of state, federal and local agencies that were stationed at shelters providing case work for evacuees after the August floods.
"There just wasn't enough housing stock," said Ray Perez, a spokesman for FEMA. "With FEMA, we're trying to help with temporary stuff in the beginning and after, work on more long term options."
Perez said FEMA had to provide hotel vouchers for at least 2,500 families. Malone said Red Cross does not maintain data tracking how many flood victims ended up in rental properties or other transitional housing.
The Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge will continue to help families navigate the uncertain waters of recovery.
"We'll be working thousands and thousands of cases over the next few years," said David Aguillard, executive director of Catholic Charities. "We'll prioritize cases based on need and work with individuals in terms of identifying their recovery plan and helping them secure the resources they need."
Aguillard said the organization's support could include helping flood victims apply for disaster relief loans, using monetary donations for any immediate issues they may face and helping flood victims appeal denials from FEMA for aid.
Mechael Williams said she'll be depending on whatever help case workers can provide her family going forward as she looks to furnish her new home and replace all she lost in the flood.
"This entire situation has taught me to stay motivated and keep faith in God," she said. "A lot of people really reached out to me and my family."