Howard and Nita Sibley still have some things to do and some questions to answer before they return to the house where they reared their children and built a life these past 30 years.
The hot water heater needs repair. The yard needs some work, the windows need curtains and the cost of flood insurance remains a big question.
The Sibleys are still working through the interminable details of recovery, 11 months after their four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath home in Baton Rouge's Sherwood Forest neighborhood took on 16 inches of water in the August flood.
But the retired couple took a big, $62,000 step recently thanks to Restore Louisiana, the nearly $1.7 billion state grant program primarily designed to bring homeowners back after the devastating March and August 2016 floods that affected 51 parishes in the state.
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Among the first to receive improvements paid for under the federally funded program, the Sibleys, who have been living in their mobile home in St. Francisville, have an empty but refinished house: new wallboard, new cabinets and counter tops, refinished bathrooms, new carpet, new vinyl flooring and other repairs.
The Sibleys said they couldn’t have been more pleased with the work, which Core Construction recently finished in short order, and think everyone with a flooded home should give the program a shot.
“I would say definitely, they need to contact the state,” Nita Sibley said.
“We’ve been telling everybody we see,” Howard Sibley added.
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More than 31,500 households have filled out preliminary surveys for the grant program, and of that number, nearly 7,485 have been invited to fill out applications to determine if they are eligible for an award, said Pat Forbes, director of the state Office of Community Development.
So far, about 3,200 applications have been completed, Forbes added. As of Friday, three months after people could start filling out grant surveys, $1.87 million had been awarded to 55 households, including the Sibleys.
“So the pipeline is filling up,” he said.
Forbes, whose office is overseeing the grant program administered by state contractor IEM, said the program is working up to handling about 700 applications per week.
Of the six tiers of eligibility built into the program, invitations to fill out applications have gone out to every household that completed a survey and is in the first two tiers and about half in the third. Forbes said he hopes everyone who is eligible to be invited to fill out an application will have been invited in next three to four months.
But he added that, at the same time, the state is also encouraging more people to fill out surveys. State officials estimate that 86,000 households affected in the March or August floods have verified losses, as determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
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The Sibleys were among a pilot group of 100 households randomly selected to be the first taken through the recovery grant program from application to completion in an attempt to work out the kinks, state recovery officials said.
Even with so much federal money at their disposal, state officials have insisted the amount isn’t enough to meet the full need in the state and have designed a program with six tiers, or phases, of priority.
The Sibleys, former independent business people who lost a good portion of their retirement nest egg several years ago in an investment scam, fit in the first, highest priority phase. It goes to households that were without flood insurance, that are outside the floodplain and that have an elderly or a disabled person at home.
The Sibleys, who are both older than 65, used to have flood insurance but dropped it long before the bayou near their home rose and overflowed last year. They never expected their home could flood, except in the absolute worst case.
“We had flood insurance when we bought the house, OK,” Howard Sibley said. They dropped it after the mortgage was paid off. "I told her, I said, ‘If we flood, Baton Rouge is going to flood. Well, Baton Rouge did flood.’”
At that admission from her husband, Nita Sibley let out one of her big, full laughs. Time, and a sense that things are turning out reasonably well, has perhaps put some perspective on last year’s devastation.
“He said, ‘Well, I was wrong,’” Nita Sibley added.
“I’m usually not wrong, but I’ll give her that one,” Howard Sibley shot back.
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The state program offers two main options to receive the grants: a state contractor is paid by the state to do a turnkey job or participants can hire their own contractor and receive disbursements of state grant dollars as work is completed. A third option allows homeowners to seek reimbursement for work they already completed, but many homeowners are expected to use this option in combination with one of the other two options to finish their homes.
Living an hour and half from their home and figuring they could not invest the time to track the repair work, the Sibleys chose option one and let the state handle the job.
“I didn’t want to fight with a contractor,” Howard Sibley said.
The Sibleys are the first household in the state that chose option one and had their job finished, state officials said.
But that choice has consequences. It meant the Sibleys had to agree to economy-style finishes for their cabinets, flooring and other improvements. For instance, the Sibleys have Formica counter tops, instead today’s more trendy but pricier granite or quartz.
The couple said the economy-grade finishes are fine. They were most concerned with saving wooden molding around the fire place, ceiling, floor and the lower part of the walls in their living room. The state contractors were able to do that, the Sibleys said. They also saved some flooring and a Jacuzzi bath tub.
Forbes said state officials, estimating that 10 percent to 15 percent of households will chose option one, have set aside $75 million from the program. These jobs are being done by builders hired by IEM.
The majority of households are expected to take option two, Forbes said. That option is reserved for residents who want to hire and oversee their own contractor and have the option for upgraded finishes. Homeowners contribute the difference necessary to buy more expensive products, state officials said.
Before work started on the Sibleys’ home, it also had to undergo an environmental review required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is the source of the federal recovery dollars granted by Congress. Contractors with IEM do those reviews, the cost of which is built into the state administrator’s $225 million contract.
Then inspectors from the state program surveyed the house to determine the cost to restore the house. Part of this review also looks at other government benefits the Sibleys received to avoid any duplication prohibited by law.
Early in the flood, FEMA gave the Sibleys $20,200, they said. The Restore Program credited the Sibleys for $6,300 already spent on gutting and other preliminary work, but the couple had to pay back $14,300 in FEMA money to avoid a duplication of benefits.
Uncertain for a while about how to proceed on their home, the Sibleys said they had not spent the rest of their FEMA money and were able to repay it.
Jeff Haley, who oversees all state housing programs for the Office of Community Development, warned that the duplication issue could be a problem for some homeowners who spent FEMA or other aid dollars and didn't use it all on their homes, such as for replacing a flooded car.
He said that situation could result in a shortfall in funding and the state won't start jobs in which there isn't funding to bring a house to a completed, livable state. But Haley also said the agency plans to work with homeowners.
Even before Restore Louisiana renovated their home, the flood brought the Sibleys a nice benefit. Their displacement to St. Francisville meant they were living next to their grandchildren, who now don't want their grandparents to leave.
The pull of family and questions about the cost of insurance are factors that could keep them in St. Francisville, Howard Sibley said, but no decision has been made yet.