Come this time next year, a big tree will grace the brand new living room of the Frison family, with its balcony overlooking citrus trees in the backyard. Their extended family will come from Alexandria, California and Georgia to fill their new Baton Rouge house with joy.
But this year, the Frisons again will be opening gifts inside a single-wide trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Mark Frison, wife Karen Christmas (yes, that's her name), and his three kids are among 383 families across the state spending a third holiday season in a FEMA mobile housing unit while they continue recovering from the August 2016 flood. At the program's peak, FEMA housed 4,633 families in MHU's.
The road home has been long and difficult, but the Frison family can now see some hope on the horizon.
"It can get a little bit emotional, but I know the finished product will be something we're happy with," Frison said.
Those still out of their homes at this point are facing a web of challenges that have taken time to resolve.
So it is for the Frison family.
On Aug. 14, 2016, Christmas woke up to take the dogs for a walk around 6:30 a.m. when she realized the toilet was backing up, the first clue something was awry. But when she stepped outside, she saw the real nightmare closing in: The backyard was flooding — fast.
So the family piled their dogs and belongings in a pickup and fled their home off Old Hammond Highway toward her mother's house in Alexandria.
The 2,600-square-foot house took on 3 feet of water while they were gone, causing substantial damage, a determination that meant the family had to elevate or rebuild. Frison chose the former.
"I don't feel like going through this again," said Frison, who works in fleet management for the federal government. "If it it floods and it gets high again, I'm going to build a house on a barge or a boat or something."
First, Frison learned the original home builder had in the 1970's placed the garage on a public servitude. It took months to receive approvals from the public utilities and the city to have the servitude revoked so a new garage could go in there.
Next, the elevation. The concrete slab underneath the house was tilted, making it impossible to lift in one piece. So they instead hired a company to drive concrete blocks under the supporting beams, raising the house as if on pilings.
Still more, a contractor got sick, requiring them to re-bid the project. And while they had flood insurance, it will cover less than half of the $560,000 to elevate and renovate the house, and the Frisons are still figuring out if they might qualify for any other help.
Twenty-eight months later, the house sits perched elegantly above the road. But the interior remains bare, stripped down to the studs.
"We call it Buckingham Palace," Christmas said with a laugh, referring to the cross street, Buckingham Avenue. Christmas is a fleet specialist for FEMA.
People still out of their homes nearly 2½ years after the disaster tend to have complicated situations that have taken time to resolve, said Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Steele said there are several common problems, among them:
- Lack of a clear house title because the property was passed down without proper succession.
- Backups in local permitting due to the high volume of cases.
- Elderly people with difficulty navigating the assistance programs.
- Duplication of benefits.
Stephanie Boswell, a spokeswoman for FEMA, said elevation requirements are another reason people remain in MHU's.
Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Saturday that FEMA approved an extension to the MHU program that will allow families to remain in the units through April 30 without penalty.
FEMA has also funded case managers who work with flood victims to navigate the federally funded assistance programs and find nonprofits willing to help those who are ineligible. The state has asked for an extension on those services for victims of the August 2016 flood through mid-May, said Janice Lovett, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Community Development.
Inside the Frisons' mobile home, there's no real sign of the holiday season. Christmas said there is no space for a tree.
But she plans to serve a honey-glazed ham with macaroni and cheese, green beans and a sweet potato pie. And of course there will be gifts.
"It's all good," Christmas said.
Frison adds, "We make do. Some people are living out of their cars. Some people are not having a Christmas this year. So we're just fortunate to have a place to stay, to be able to provide Christmas for the kids."