Two hours into his visit at the disaster relief center Monday, Brandon Wiley was at his third station.
He and his pregnant wife, Haley, have been sleeping in their car for the past week. He’s looking for a temporary housing after floodwaters destroyed everything they owned in a rent house near the Federal Emergency Management Administration center at the New Hope Baptist Church on Greenwell Springs Road in Baton Rouge.
Wiley and his wife were among the 104 applicants, by mid-afternoon, seeking aid at the newly opened disaster relief stations around south Louisiana.
Forty one applicants came into the center at New Hope Baptist on Sunday and 104 had come by early afternoon.
The average time from signing in, speaking with agents at the various stations to finishing up is about three to four hours.
Wiley said he arrived prepared and wasn’t stressed by the lines. “It’s to be expected,” he said as they moved from one chair to the next, a little bit closer to one of the agents at the U.S. Small Business Administration desk.
Recovery, which officials say could take a year, had begun in earnest Monday. A storm that that began Aug. 12 dumped as much as two feet of rain in some areas over 48 hours, causing catastrophic flooding in several parishes. At least 13 people died and more than an estimated 40,000 homes were flooded.
FEMA opened disaster recovery centers in East Baton Rouge, West Feliciana and Tangipahoa parishes Monday to help flood victims get recovery assistance. Three more will open Tuesday in Gonzales, Zachary and West Baton Rouge Parish.
The centers are open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Sunday until further notice.
Renee Bafalis, a FEMA spokeswoman, said she was shocked Monday morning when arrived at New Hope and saw that 110,000 households have registered so far. The numbers will go up as more register online or upon arrival at the centers. That’s about double the number FEMA helped in the flooding in West Virginia in late June that resulted in 23 deaths.
“This is the first step,” Bafalis said. “We can't get you back to where you were before the storm, but we can help you get to a safe, secure and sanitary environment.”
FEMA stresses the goal of the grant program is not to make people whole, simply to give people cash for damage that will help put of roof back over their heads – either in their own secured property or with rent payments for temporary housing.
For all the flood victims who did not have flood insurance, the individual assistance grants are the primary resource to get money quickly. Although, it is capped at $33,000, over the last decade the per-person payout has tended to run between $3,000 and $8,000 on average, depending on the disaster.
In short, it tends to be far less than devastated renters and homeowners without flood insurance need.
FEMA also directs applicants to the U.S. Small Business Administration, which is often an underutilized tool, perhaps because of its name. During disasters, the SBA can make low-interest loans to renters and homeowners and funnels people back to smaller FEMA reimbursement programs if they don’t qualify.
For that reason, FEMA encourages everyone to fill out an SBA loan application whether they think they need it or not.
The Small Business Administration received 1,195 disaster loan applications and approved more than $6.3 million in low-interest loans.
While it is not yet clear how many people who flooded had flood insurance, estimates based on the number of policies and the number of households suggest 86 percent of homes in East Baton Rouge Parish were not covered and 78 percent in Livingston weren’t covered.
Traditional homeowners policies do not cover floods, and all flood insurance is provided by the government’s National Flood Insurance Program.
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Like many of the Baton Rouge homeowners, Marvin Thomas’s north Baton Rouge home was near but not in flood zone.
In the 22 years he’s owned the house, which sits on three-foot high pilings, it has never flooded – never came close. So, when the water came onto his lawn, he didn’t really worry. When hit his top step, Thomas evacuated.
The floodwater rose another three or four feet and destroyed all his furniture and all his appliances. He’s going to have to replace the flooring and drywall. He lost both cars.
Even if Thomas qualifies for the maximum FEMA grant, he’s also going to need one the SBA’s low interest loans to buy appliances and repair his home.
“I didn’t know it would flood. Nobody told me that I was in danger of that happening,” Thomas said. “All I want is to get back to living.”
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