The day after Hurricane Ida tore through her LaPlace apartment, Shequita Jackson registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, hoping to qualify for enough assistance to rent a place while she rebuilt her life.
Eight days later, Jackson is living out of her Hyundai Sonata with her 16-year-old son in Lafayette. She logs onto FEMA’s website just about every half hour to see the same message: PENDING.
In Hurricane Ida’s aftermath, FEMA officials say they have distributed roughly $175 million in aid to nearly 160,000 Louisiana households, helping to cover the cost of food, water, diapers and gas with immediate $500 checks and doling out even more money for rental assistance and home repairs.
But an unknown number of survivors are falling through the cracks.
Some can’t navigate the application online or don’t have the electricity or cell service to spend hours calling FEMA. Thousands more have been rejected for having insurance but can’t get payouts from their carriers because they weren’t in mandatory evacuation zones, as required in most homeowners' policies.
And then there are survivors like Jackson, trapped in FEMA’s bureaucratic maze, with frustratingly few answers on where to turn.
“I just feel so abandoned,” she said. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”
With few other options, Jackson spends hours each day listening to hold music on FEMA’s helpline. On Tuesday morning, the wait time was 82 minutes.
She’s been told countless times to go to a shelter, but with COVID-19 running amok, she’s fearful for her health. The 36-year-old has high blood pressure and her son has asthma, putting them both at a higher risk of complications from the deadly virus.
What she needs is a hotel room or cash assistance for short-term housing, but online, FEMA says her application is pending a property inspection. That’s confusing for Jackson, who said her sister, the owner of the apartment, already got FEMA help.
“I feel like I’m speaking another language when I tell them I’m homeless,” she said. “I feel so degraded that I have to keep calling and begging FEMA for help.”
Ronea Wood evacuated from Gretna ahead of the storm with her husband and Yorkie, but because Jefferson Parish didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation order, Farm Bureau Insurance won’t cover their living expenses.
At this point, her only hope for reimbursement is if an adjuster determines her property isn’t livable. Without significant physical damage, that’s unlikely to happen, even though her house remains without working power.
“Under whose conditions is it livable?” Wood said. “It’s 120 degrees inside that house. I can’t live there.”
President Joe Biden during his visit to Louisiana last week pressured insurance providers to look past the “fine print” in their policies and cover customers’ living expenses regardless of whether local officials issued a mandatory evacuation order.
Allstate and USAA – which together account for roughly 15 percent of the market – have reportedly waived the requirement.
Meanwhile, State Farm, which dominates a quarter of the Louisiana market, wrote in a statement that it would cover evacuation costs "in accordance with policy language" and is "committed to pay what we owe."
Without written documentation that a private insurer denied a claimant coverage, FEMA, by law, can’t cover a survivor’s evacuation expenses. A spokesperson for the agency encouraged residents to reach back out to FEMA after obtaining that written denial, saying their application for assistance would be reconsidered.
Late last week, Wood learned she qualified for a FEMA-subsidized hotel room.
The Courtyard Marriott in Troy, Alabama where she landed was initially listed online as an eligible hotel, but when Wood asked about the program, the front desk there had no clue what she was talking about.
A FEMA spokesperson said the list of hotels is continually updated by their partner, Corporate Lodging Consultants, and is not in the agency’s control.
“The list is bogus,” Wood said, frustrated after calling multiple hotels on the list with no luck. “If they call this help, this is not right.”
When Biden toured LaPlace on Friday, he was just a few blocks away from where Jackson had lived. After seeing coverage of the president’s visit to her hometown she sent him a message through the White House website.
“I seen you in my neighborhood the other day, but FEMA has forgotten about me somehow. Can you please help me and my child?” she wrote.
During his visit, Biden promised that FEMA would send representatives door-to-door to help survivors living off the grid sign up for disaster assistance. And on Sunday, FEMA dispatched a team to Port Sulphur in a remote area of Plaquemines Parish to help survivors apply.
But it’s unclear if those door-to-door efforts have materialized elsewhere. A FEMA spokesperson said teams are stationed at more than 25 locations across southeast Louisiana, including at all of New Orleans’ cooling stations.
The president also promised that disaster assistance would be distributed equitably, but Jackson can’t help but feel like she’s been abandoned because she’s poor. She said one FEMA phone operator “handled me like I was a panhandler.”
While she waits for aid, Jackson is trying to stay strong for her son. Still, the federal government’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina remains fresh in her family’s memory, and she worries Ida’s traumas will stick with her son.
“You can best believe he’s not going to have faith in his government anymore,” she said.
Having issues getting assistance from either FEMA or your insurance provider in Hurricane Ida's aftermath? Send your story to staff writer Blake Paterson at email@example.com and a reporter may reach out to you.