After riding a boat away from his home in Glen Oaks after dark on Saturday, Williams Cokes and his housemates spent three nights camped out at McKinley High School before landing in a soundstage at Celtic Studios, transformed over the weekend into a huge makeshift shelter.
"They're still saying we can't get through to our house without a boat," Cokes said Wednesday while walking his dog with Shondra Troquville and Gregory Simon. "We don't know where we're going to go. We've got nothing."
Although thousands have left emergency shelters — returning home, to a relative's home, a hotel room or a friend's couch — more than 5,000 people remain across south Louisiana, many facing uncertain futures on cots in school cafeterias, college arenas and local civic centers. Some still wait for the waters to recede to go back to houses spared in the flood; others say they simply have nowhere else to go.
At Celtic Media Centre, a movie and production studio transformed into a shelter over the weekend, about 900 evacuees remained Wednesday evening, down dramatically from the more than 2,000 people who sought refuge there Sunday.
"We're definitely seeing a trend down" at shelters statewide, said Terri Ricks, deputy secretary for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services. "I think that's because, as the waters are receding, people are now able to go back to their homes. Some are now staying with family members."
But for those without family to turn to and with homes swept away or ruined by feet of water, life offers little certainty for the coming weeks and months. Ricks said some of those who left shelters are coming back after finding no power and a fetid stench from mud coating their homes.
Not even the governor knows yet what to do with those left homeless by the floods, saying it's too early to speak about temporary housing beyond shelters as rescue missions continue and state officials work to tally up just how many lost all.
"We have to take into consideration this particular group of storm victims and what their needs are going to be," Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said FEMA teams will be going into shelters and communities to survey flood victims about their needs over the coming weeks, though he couldn't provide an exact timetable. A housing task force arranged by the governor is also studying options.
Fugate said that quick improvements to get people back into their homes will be the first option. The next plan would be to get people into apartments and other rental properties through FEMA's rental assistance program, though it's unclear how many the housing market will be able to absorb. More than 70,000 Louisiana residents have already applied for help from FEMA.
"The fastest response in many cases will be making emergency repairs on homes to get them back in them, in other cases, it will be getting them into a rental," Fugate said. "In some areas,that will make sense, and in some areas, it won't."
For the rest, temporary housing trailers may be brought in — no decision has been made yet — as was done in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and several natural disasters since. Fugate said that the manufactured housing units have been upgraded in the past 11 years since Katrina, and any housing brought in would meet the approval of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"This is not the FEMA travel trailers," Fugate said. "If we need to bring in any kind of temporary housing units, they are better than they've ever been."
In Ascension Parish, more than 800 people have found homes inside the Trademart and 4-H Building at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center, which first opened as a shelter after Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago. The emergency sheltering operation was a model of organization Wednesday for residents displaced by the water in the parish as Edwards toured the parish-government owned complex.
A few hundred cots were mostly occupied, while along the sides of the building, the Red Cross had set up a station for meals, a pharmacy and a play area of books and toys for the children.
Ascension public school teachers Sandi Bourque and Sarah Blank, who are not at work this week after flooding devastated the school system, were volunteering at the play area.
“Children are resilient, and this is how I feel I can be of the most help,” said Blank, 26, of Gonzales, and a teacher at Dutchtown Primary School
Chad Clement and his wife, Karen, of Galvez fled their trailer on Norwood Road early Sunday when the water had risen 17 feet, by Chad’s estimation, and was a foot from reaching his floor.
The Clements have been at Lamar-Dixon ever since, and Chad has no complaints considering the scale of what he says has been achieved in such a short period of time.
“When you step back and look at this, as a whole, phenomenal job everywhere,” Clement said.
He said neighbors have since informed him that his trailer did not get water, but the floodwater has not receded enough for him and his wife to return, much less have electricity.
At Celtic, Alex Bouie III — who waded more than a mile through muddy water away from his Ellis Avenue home off O'Neal Lane with his grandchild tethered by a rope — has been sleeping on a cot at with his dog, Duke, since they were moved from an emergency shelter at McKinley High School.
Bouie said he didn't know the fate of his home yet but, "the way my daughter's crying, I think that's it — it's over, lost everything."
Teams of volunteers hurried around the sprawling movie studio, which has transformed since the weekend into a bustling community now referred to as "Celticville." A beauty salon, veterinary clinic and free stops of donated items have sprung up inside the giant soundstages that once housed sets for productions like "The Fantastic Four" and "Twilight: Breaking Dawn."
Chefs with barbecue pits have served up hundreds of pounds of smoked meat to hungry residents and volunteers lead yoga classes, organize art activities and watch children pedaling through big wheel courses in the complex. Just before noon Wednesday, one volunteer announces a truck from a local Smoothie King franchise is parked at the front gate, passing out smoothies to anyone who wants one.
"Here, the people are so kind," said Bouie, patting Duke, his panting Mastiff sprawled on a cot next to him.
On folding tables, families displaced in the flood look through piles of donated clothing and grab personal items: Toothbrushes, tampons, clean towels and packages of socks. But beyond the material needs, the rush of activity around the complex also serves to distract the hundreds gathered here from the ways the floodwaters have upended their lives.
"Everybody has been so wonderful, so great," said Shondra Troquville, who lives with Cokes in their now-submerged home in Glen Oaks. "It's a blessing being here. It's keeping our minds off the tragedy we got back home."