FRENCH SETTLEMENT — Paul Dearmond isn't getting around too well these days, but he may soon have to pick up his pace.
Bandaged wounds on Dearmond’s right shoulder and leg are still sore after recent surgery to have cancerous skin removed, and the 84-year-old retired iron worker said Friday he continues to need the occasional assistance of a cane after a nasty fall in late 2016.
Dearmond fell a short time after his elevated camp-turned-home of 15 years flooded with 18 inches of water when the swollen Amite River washed through this section of lower Livingston Parish in August 2016.
Now waiting on funding from the Restore Louisiana program, Dearmond has been living rent free in a Federal Emergency Management Agency mobile home, but FEMA mailed him a letter dated Jan. 14 that says he must be out exactly a month later or he would have to start paying $842 in monthly rent beginning March 1.
"When you get 84 years old, all kinds of things happen to you, man," Dearmond said of his ailments.
Dearmond is among nearly 1,700 people and households in Louisiana facing a similar Valentine's Day dilemma: prepare to pay rent to FEMA for their disaster recovery mobile home or get out by the 14th.
By federal law, FEMA's temporary housing program is supposed to end 18 months after a disaster declaration, in this case, Feb. 14. At the state's request, FEMA agreed to extend the program until May 15 and waive a $550 penalty for people who remain beyond Feb. 14, but the manufactured housing unit occupants will have to pay fair market rent, FEMA says.
In recent weeks, Gov. John Bel Edwards, members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation and parish officials in East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes have made public calls on FEMA to delay the March 1 rental deadline. They’ve argued the agency should recognize the pace of recovery in the state after the double-whammy floods of March and August 2016 and as the Restore Louisiana program gradually spools out.
Some residents who don't want to or can't afford to pay rent said they are already making hurried plans to get out and, in some cases, move back into the less-than-solid housing they had before the FEMA trailer arrived.
Don Guidry, 61, said he will move into a small, unheated metal work shed on his property in Ascension Parish after FEMA takes away the trailer he has had for seven to eight months. He said he can't afford the $842 in rent he would have to pay.
“I'm going to start moving in here tomorrow,” Guidry said Thursday.
Guidry, who is still working on putting in a toilet in the shed, lives off Broussard Road in Prairieville just south of Bayou Manchac.
His elevated trailer flooded twice in 2016, once in March and then again more severely in August when residents reported up to 15 feet of water in the bottom land area. Dealt a death blow by the second flood, the mobile home was recently disassembled and is now a pile of wood on top of the mobile home’s frame.
Guidry said years of working construction in plants and overseas exposed him to asbestos and left him with emphysema and unable to hold a steady job. He said he gets by doing odd work on cars and with the help of 28 roosters and hens who keep him flush in fresh eggs.
He said he is still trying to raise the few hundred dollars in cash to get paperwork notarized so his Restore Louisiana program application can move forward, but he added that FEMA representatives have been around weekly recently emphasizing to him and his neighbors — his relatives — that they’ll have to soon get out or pay up. The hard-pressure encounters have rankled Guidry, he said, and made him feel degraded.
"Talk to me like a civilized human being," Guidry said Friday. "Don't make it come out sideways because I'm not that type of person. I'm a little man, but talk to me. Tell me what I need to do. Have a civilized adult conversation. Let's get to the point. I know what to do. I'll do it. I'll take care of my end.”
FEMA said in a statement Friday that the agency and the state "are in continuing discussions regarding the possibility of a rent waiver for occupants of Manufactured Housing Units.”
“Our mutual goal is to help families move from FEMA’s temporary housing to a permanent housing solution,” the FEMA statement says.
The agency added it works one-on-one with residents on their eligibility for the program to help them find permanent housing. FEMA added that families continue to move out of the mobile housing units, leaving about 152 units between Jan. 23 and Thursday.
As of Thursday, FEMA said, 1,778 manufactured housing units are still being used in Louisiana, serving 1,686 households. Some households have more than one unit due to the size of their family. The overall number of units in use is down from a peak of about 4,500. East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension had 95 percent of all units remaining in the state, with East Baton Rouge holding the majority at 952.
For some, like Guidry, Dearmond and others, their ability to find permanent housing is contingent on Restore Louisiana, the big state hurricane recovery program backed with federal dollars. These people are essentially caught between FEMA’s deadline and Restore’s timeline.
State officials have continued to insist that the Restore program is moving faster than other past disaster recovery programs of its kind.
Dearmond said he was recently told in a Restore Louisiana community meeting that he would be awarded $45,000 for his irreparably flood-damaged, mold-ridden trailer but then learned a few weeks later that the number may not be correct.
In any case, he said, a program official told that him that he first needed an inspection of his damaged trailer before he could have a better idea of how much money he will get. Dearmond said that an inspector hadn’t yet arrived by Friday.
Dearmond added that he can’t tear down the damaged trailer and bring in a new, financed mobile home until the inspection happens and he has a clearer idea about what he would receive from the state. With 12 days to move out or start paying rent, the Air Force and Korean War veteran said the whole situation has him in a "frenzy."
"I can't do nothing. I'm stalemated. I got to let'em see this trailer first," Dearmond said of his damaged home. "I'd have done torn it down and had it moved."
Kirk Rebaldo, 50, who also lives in French Settlement, is in a similar predicament as Dearmond and Guidry. Rebaldo, who is 100 percent disabled, can't afford to pay FEMA $1,057 in rent — it would be more than his disability check — and can't move forward without Restore Louisiana's help, which is waiting on title paperwork. It is unclear why his rent would be higher.
But he said he plans to sign paperwork next week to allow FEMA to take his FEMA trailer away. He said he plans to move in with a cousin in French Settlement who had taken him in shortly after the flood.
"I’m just grateful for whatever help is out there,” Rebaldo said.