Returning Hurricane Laura evacuee viewed mounds of trash along 5th Ave. from gutted hurricane damaged apartment buildings in Lake Charles in Lake Charles, La. Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020.

Ashlee Fuselier is ready to leave the New Orleans hotel she and her family of six have inhabited for the past month, after a dizzying series of moves across Louisiana and Texas since they fled Lake Charles ahead of Hurricane Laura in late August.

“I have four kids,” Fuselier said. “It’s very hard. There’s not a lot of room. I have not had a good cooked meal since I left home on August 27th.”

Fuselier’s family stayed in a state-provided hotel in Dallas for a time, before the government started slipping letters under their door, prompting them to leave. For three months, they were bounced around from hotel to hotel, where Fuselier racked up thousands of dollars in bills for which she’s hoping to get reimbursed. They’ve been to Shreveport, where her fiancé, Aarik Young, injured his back while painting houses, and to the Alexandria mega-shelter during a trip to verify their house was uninhabitable. For the past month, they’ve resided at the Holiday Inn Superdome in New Orleans, 200 miles from Lake Charles.

Recently, though, they’ve been running around the state not to get into the next hotel, but to get out of them.

Fuselier and Young have traveled to and from Baton Rouge and Lafayette, looking for a rental they can afford and fit their family of six. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency has approved them for rental assistance – to the tune of a little over $800 a month – they haven’t been able to find a place.

“There’s just not enough apartments,” said Young, after a recent trip to Baton Rouge. “Maybe someone with a smaller family ... We couldn’t find anything with three bedrooms.”

The government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to address the biggest challenge in hurricane recovery, housing. And the state is in the midst of a months-long effort to get storm victims out of hotels and into more permanent housing. But the task has proved challenging for both storm victims and the government.

The number of people taking refuge in hotels or mega-shelters because of the storms has dropped from more than 18,000 at the peak. But as of Monday, more than 2,000 evacuees remained in hotels provided by the government since Hurricane Laura hit southwest Louisiana, followed by hurricanes Delta and Zeta, which hit southwest Louisiana and New Orleans, respectively, in the weeks after.

While government agencies are working to get them out, state and federal officials said it will likely be spring or summer of 2021 before all the storm victims are moved out of hotels. 

The effort is being complicated by the fact that the storms ravaged affordable housing units across southwest Louisiana. Eighty-two developments overseen by the Louisiana Housing Corporation, spanning 3,157 units, notified the agency they sustained damages from the storm, LHC spokesman Eddie Bynog said. 

Approximately 1,984 households were displaced because of units becoming uninhabitable because of the damage, Bynog said. The Louisiana Housing Corporation oversees affordable housing in the state. 

State agencies and the Red Cross, which will be reimbursed by the state, have spent nearly $50 million putting up hurricane evacuees in hotels during an unprecedented hurricane season that collided with the coronavirus pandemic, wreaking havoc on Louisiana. That number includes $5.3 million in hotels through contracts with the governor’s emergency department, $37.5 million in hotels through Red Cross and about $4.6 million in staffing and other costs from the Department of Children and Family Services. The costs are expected to grow, though the feds will pick up most of the tab.

In recent months, government agencies and Red Cross have told more than 1,300 evacuees to leave the hotels and go back home as part of the effort to get people out of hotels. Of those, 571 people requested a “reassessment” of the damage, and 293 had their damage re-classified as major or destroyed, earning them another hotel stay.

On Dec. 9, the free meals provided to evacuees at the hotels, mostly in New Orleans, will end, as part of FEMA’s conditions for continuing to pay for the lion’s share of the hotel costs. State officials say people who need food will still be able to access it, as case workers work to help the storm victims.

But officials with FEMA and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness concede it will likely be spring or summer before all the storm victims are moved out of hotels into other housing.

Casey Tingle, chief of staff at the governor’s emergency department, said FEMA is slated to pick up 75% of the tab for the hotel costs, a share that could grow to 90%. Every 30 days, the state negotiates an extension of the hotel sheltering program with FEMA to keep the federal tap turned on. The latest negotiation resulted in an end to the feeding service because the government is trying to wind down the hotel program.

“Over time these criteria will likely change and continue to become more stringent, with the goal of trying to figure out, how do we get people back home,” Tingle said.

Evacuees in hotels fall into three main categories, Tingle said. One is people eligible for FEMA’s direct housing program, where the government brings mobile housing units into the region for families to live. Tingle said the last people to remain in hotels – likely “well into the spring” – will be those waiting for these units.

Another category is people who stayed in public housing before the storm, and were essentially evicted because the housing became unsafe. Tingle said the agency is working with state and federal housing authorities to monitor when units will be repaired, and some people are getting vouched from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development department, or were put up in other apartments.

Then there’s the people who don’t qualify for FEMA assistance, or were homeless before the storm. Tingle said the state is trying to find apartments and hotels as a temporary measure closer to home.

“There aren’t any easy answers and there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all,” Tingle said.

Housing has proved the biggest task for state and federal officials. Of the more than $196 million spent by FEMA for Hurricane Laura recovery, $134.2 million was spent on housing needs like rental assistance, lodging expense reimbursement and home repair assistance, said FEMA spokesperson Melissa Wilkins.

Already 2,202 households have been approved for direct housing from FEMA, said Wilkins, and that is expected to grow to about 2,600. Another 3,000 survivors have found their own permanent housing solution – including people who have moved out-of-state, moved in with a family member or found an apartment.

Before moving a family into a housing unit, FEMA has to find a suitable site that is zoned properly and can fit the unit, then ship one of the living spaces from the agency’s supply, which is being bolstered by purchases from local dealers. Then the agency has to transport the unit and install it. The resident is responsible for securing a second electrical box from their utility company, Wilkins said, and that hook up must be approved by the local government before a final inspection.

So far, 200 applicants have been licensed to move into the units. Most of those – at least 143 – are RVs, while another 14 are manufactured housing units, similar to the ones used after the 2016 flooding in south Louisiana. Another 201 units are in the process of being matched with eligible families.

Of the evacuees in hotels, Wilkins said FEMA has identified 241 households eligible for direct temporary housing assistance. But there are several hurdles to getting people into housing, including that their property is too small to accommodate a manufactured housing unit, the family is too large to fit into just one unit, the property needs to be rezoned to allow for the mobile home and neighbors are concerned that units on private property made devalue the land.

Plus, the number of sites needed “far exceeds” the number of sites available, Wilkins said. FEMA estimates it needs to find or develop nearly 1,000 additional sites.

“At this time, we are looking at late spring to early summer to have the final households licensed into a unit,” Wilkins said in an email.

FEMA is trying to find “group sites” where several units can be located. The agency has identified 25 such group sites. But those take a minimum of three months to build, Wilkins said, as the government has to develop a preliminary design, conduct environmental surveys, secure the land, create an in-depth design and get permits before building.

There are also several other programs, including housing aid through FEMA’s individual assistance, which are funds provided to storm victims for temporary lodging or rental housing, or repair of their damaged home. FEMA also provides rental assistance to people displaced from the storm, based on need.

In the meantime, FEMA is looking for property management companies in southwest Louisiana to partner with the feds and lease residential property not typically available to the public – like corporate apartments – for use as temporary housing for evacuees. Wilkins said finding suitable property owners has also proved difficult.

The three of Young and Fuselier’s four children who are school-aged haven’t been back to the classroom since leaving Lake Charles, Young said. Their school, the Lake Charles Academy, reopened, but the family can’t find a place to stay in their home city. They don’t want to put them in a New Orleans school only to leave shortly thereafter. Other members of their family have scattered across the region, and Young’s brother landed as far away as Syracuse, New York.

“We’re all displaced,” Young said. “Families are having to be broken up ... We’re all getting scattered everywhere.”

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