Despite heavy publicity, more than 20,000 households with significant damage from the 2016 flood in south Louisiana never took the first step to tap the $1.3 billion set aside for home reconstruction under the Restore Louisiana program, a new state report says.

The failure to fill out the initial, five-minute damage survey is expected to contribute to 44 percent fewer households than initially anticipated being able to access the recovery money, officials with the state program say. 

Higher-than-expected rates of withdrawals from the recovery program — after homeowners proceed further along in the process — and higher-than-expected numbers of homeowners who had their potential award canceled out by U.S. Small Business Administration loans, flood insurance and other grants are also contributing to the 44 percent figure.

Of the more than 20,000 households that did not fill out surveys, more than half of them were in the worst-hit parishes during the August 2016 flood: East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston, according to Restore data.

As many as 12,000 of those 20,000 households didn't also receive SBA loans or flood insurance payments and so they likely would have needed help, program officials said.

Households with "major" or "severe" damage as deemed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were eligible for the homeowner program. That means at least roughly 1 foot of water or $8,000 in damage.

In all, the state now expects to spend $649 million on the homeowner program, about half of the $1.3 billion state officials set aside. 

The state initially estimated about 36,000 households from the 2016 flood lacked federal aid or insurance money and had bad enough flood damage that they could tap the Restore homeowner program dollars. But program officials now say in a new plan amendment that fewer than 20,000 households in all could ultimately receive some of the federal funding without other changes to the program and federal law.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state congressional delegation are pushing to fix an SBA loan policy that restricts the distribution of some awards.

Possible changes in SBA loan guidelines could make money available for 5,000 more households and a planned home buyout program could add 400 to 500 more, boosting overall numbers closer to 26,000 households, said Pat Forbes, director of the state Office of Community Development, which is overseeing Restore.  

In all, more than 53,720 households filled out damage surveys before a July 20 deadline. So far, 13,324 households that did take that critical early step and went through the rest of the process have been awarded nearly $438 million in grant money. 

Forbes said he hopes to have all applications processed by the end of the year, if not sometime this fall.

But Restore officials were at a loss to explain why so many people would not try to benefit. Forbes said although the program was promoted heavily through the media, billboards and electronic messaging, many Louisiana residents prefer their self-reliance and weren't interested in government help.

"There is definitely a group of people in Louisiana who because they went and got their house rebuilt, they're resilient, whatever, their son-in-law came and helped, they never asked us for money," Forbes said in a recent interview with The Advocate editorial board. "There's just a population in Louisiana that's like that. They don't want help. They did it, and they decided somebody else should get the money."

Restore used FEMA tallies to establish estimates of damaged households. Even using different formulas, Restore and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reached essentially the same cost figure for the homeowner program: $1.3 billion.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican from Baton Rouge whose district encompasses much of the worst-hit areas, said his office, like the state, heavily encouraged residents to fill out the initial survey even if they had doubts that they could get the assistance. But he said people may have considered the paperwork so much red tape.

"The people that we are dealing with, we're hearing a lot of people say, ‘You know what? Look. It's just a pain in the butt,' ” Graves said. " 'I filled out paperwork for SBA. I filled out paperwork for FEMA. I may have filled out paperwork for flood insurance. I filled the same damn stuff for Restore, and I’m sick of the bureaucracy.' ”

Forbes said the state attempted to limit the bureaucracy by tapping existing databases to avoid additional paperwork submissions and speeding up reviews.

Data from Restore Louisiana showed that Livingston Parish had the largest number of households statewide that did not fill out a survey at 4,913. 

Mark Harrell, the homeland security director in Livingston, said residents in his parish were just "punch drunk" from the rounds of paperwork and already in an emotional state that left them distrustful of government assistance. Restore likely undercounted the number of Livingston flood victims, he said, because some didn't even seek help from FEMA.

"There's people that didn't do any of it. They just dealt with their loss and moved on," he said.

Al and Darlene Taillon, of the Brittany area between Gonzales and Sorrento in Ascension Parish, received a small amount of money from FEMA and had flood insurance, a quasi-public program the government subsidizes for ratepayers. But they still had to pay several thousand dollars out of pocket to return to their home in spring 2017. They said they had no plans to seek a Restore grant.

"We do not depend on the government to get us out of anything," Darlene Taillon said. "We don't."

After dealing with their bank, she said she wouldn't have expected much more money from Restore and wasn't willing to share yet more personal information to get it.

"We take care of us," Darlene said. "And we take care of our neighbors and our community, and they help take care of us when we need it, as it should be."

While nearly a third didn't fill out surveys in Livingston and Ascension, there was a much stronger response in East Baton Rouge Parish. Eighty-five percent of people with FEMA-verified losses filled out surveys, the data show. While Baton Rouge's being a major media market might have made a difference, there were several rural parishes where a greater percentage of people didn't fill out Restore surveys, the data show. In St. Landry Parish, for instance, nearly 75 percent of households with damage didn't fill out a Restore survey.

Gail Robinson, 64, of Lafayette, said she had never heard of the Restore program until she saw a segment about it on the TV news July 30 — 10 days after the deadline to submit a survey. In Lafayette Parish, 42 percent of households with FEMA-verfied losses did not fill out a survey.

Robinson said in an interview that she had no flood insurance, had received just $10,500 from FEMA and did not take out an SBA loan — factors that could have helped her qualify for Restore money. Her family helped her rebuild the three-bedroom home that flooded with 2 feet of water. But it’s imperfectly done, and there’s a lot still unfinished, like the warped door frames that pull away from the walls.

“I really wish I would have known,” Robinson said.

After learning about the program, Robinson went to a Restore office in Lafayette and she said the worker at the office was condescending.

“Any time I tried to ask a question, he just kept saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re trying to get me to say. … It’s not my fault. You had two years, and you didn’t hear about the program,’ ” Robinson said in a tearful voicemail left on a reporter’s cellphone.

Restore officials have said they identified people with losses and sent them, on average, 50 emails and five to seven text messages. Shauna Sanford, a spokeswoman for Restore, said the program tried to contact Robinson "on several different occasions via text, phone call and voicemail messages to the cellphone number she provided, as well as by postcard to her address with details about the deadline."

"We certainly regret that Ms. Robinson did not complete the survey before the program deadline and that the program is now unable to assist her," Sanford said.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.