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Piles of discarded possession lingered outside the Baytee housing compled in Vacherie on Monday, Oct. 18, almost two months after Hurricane Ida damaged the complex

Africa Davis and her family prepared to leave their home of six years for the foreseeable future, cleaning out their belongings two months after Hurricane Ida tore off part of the roof.

Water damage and resulting mold has rendered her home in a St. James Parish public housing complex unlivable and officials have had to force out her and other residents to make repairs.

Davis and her kids have shifted from living with her mother in Prairieville to staying with her sister in St. John the Baptist Parish. They don't yet have a long-term solution.

"I'm just waiting to hear back something from someone," Davis said.

Rentals in the area are too expensive for her salary, she said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency only offered money for two months of rent, and temporary state or federal trailers aren't yet available, she said. 

FEMA has already spent $464 million for post-Ida housing grants. But some public housing residents in St. James Parish are still living with family and friends, with quickly expiring FEMA hotel vouchers or even briefly in their vehicles.

They said they had few long-term housing options while they waited on the still uncertain timeline for their units to be restored.

Parish government and housing officials in St. James say public housing took a hard hit during Ida, tearing off roofs and leaving homes with water damage and dangerous mold.

About 130 households in the parish's 252 public housing units on the east and west banks have had to relocate since Ida, according to Meredith Conger, parish government spokeswoman.

The Baytree complex where Davis has lived in the west bank community of "front" Vacherie along the Mississippi River was among the worst hit, housing officials said. 

Some 240 private households also still have significant damage, and a third of their residents also need long-term housing, Conger added.

St. James had problems with limited housing even before Ida passed. Parish officials are working to bring FEMA trailers and federal housing vouchers to the area.

But individual FEMA trailers can't be placed on federal public housing properties, parish officials said. So they have argued for a future FEMA park as a way to keep public housing residents close to home. 

Local officials are working with the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to remedy the situation, Parish President Pete Dufresne said.

The state is also starting to roll out its own sheltering program that offers individual trailers more quickly than FEMA does.

St. James had lengthy power and cell phone outages after Ida that, at one point, led government officials to describe St. James as being "off the grid." Some sections of the parish also had their roads cut off for a few days by downed trees and power lines.

Those widespread problems exacerbated the damage to the parish's public housing units, contributing to residents being forced out of their homes for safety reasons.  

Dana Groover, executive director of the St. James Parish Public Housing Authority, said the public units went without power for 14 days. 

Few of her residents had anywhere to move their wet possessions immediately after the storm passed. And the lack of climate control quickly sparked mold growth that has made many units uninhabitable, Groover said. It will require extensive interior demolition and renovation.

"For many of my families here, this is home. This is their lifestyle. This is all they have," Groover said. "And so, they were trying to remain in those units, and we kept saying, 'Guys, you cannot remain here. This is not safe.'"

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The Louisiana State Fire Marshal's Office determined the units that were closed were not safe for continued habitation, Groover said.

Groover doesn't yet have a timeline for how long the renovations will take, but she noted the housing authority may need to make additional modernizations that aren't strictly tied to hurricane damage due to permitting requirements. 

The closure of the most-damaged housing units wasn't without some controversy, though. Roylena Humphries, 42, a mother of two adult children and two teens, said the housing authority changed her locks in her Baytree unit after it was determined to be unlivable.

She said she and her family had spent two days sleeping in her car outside her locked Baytree unit after moving around among hotels in Alexandria and Houston, Texas, in the first week after Ida passed.

"I always felt like they could have gave us better notice (that the units would be closed) and, being that this was HUD, I felt like they didn't care what happened to the families here," Humphries said.

After a brief stay with her adult daughter in a one-bedroom efficiency and a hotel stay in Donaldsonville, Humphries said she and her children are staying in a hotel in Baton Rouge for $150 per night. FEMA had given her hotel vouchers, but they expired after a week.

Dufresne, the parish president, said it was unfortunate the way public housing residents were forced out so rapidly, but most have found housing since with the help of local officials and others. 

The parish is still working on the longer term, the president said.

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser initially offered the use of housing inside Bayou Segnette State Park. But Dufresne said the group quarters were seen as unsuitable for the single families with children that make up many of the families looking for more permanent housing.

About a week ago, the Parish Council eased some development rules, clearing the way for an RV or trailer park to be built on private property through FEMA or state government.

Parish officials had already started soliciting interested landowners for possible group sites, though none have been disclosed.

FEMA officials said it only considers group sites when other forms of direct housing aid cannot meet the need. The agency must approve each of the RV or trailer sites. They also must meet all local building and planning rules, must be near other services for its residents and can't be on flood-prone land.

Council members aired concerns last week about where a future park would go and how that park could be prevented from becoming permanent after it stopped housing temporary trailers. The councilmen adopted the measure, but put an expiration date on any park. The measure also eases rules to allow trailers and RVs for individual homeowners. 

St. James has limited rental housing, one of the reasons the parish has never had Section 8 housing choice voucher program, Groover said. That is a federal program that allows residents to use federal vouchers to rent private market units.

But an out-of-state housing agency has offered its unused vouchers for displaced residents, Groover said.

As of Monday, 79 households had already signed up. Groover said she was trying to work with local landlords so they could qualify their units for the HUD program. 

Davis signed up for one of the vouchers, offering hope in the future. But the emotional weight of what has happened was resting heavily as she cleaned out her unit this week.

A 26-year-old single, working mother, Davis had just lost everything she had been trying to build up for her family over the past several years in public housing.

"It's a hurting feeling because I worked so hard. With me being a young, single parent, it was very heartbreaking. I'm just basically starting all over. I have to start all over," she said, as some of her children played in the complex courtyard during a break in the clean-up.


Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.