PONCHATOULA — Kila Marks describes the moment as a nightmare. Water poured into her house for the second time in five months, just days after she finished repairing the structure and moved home.
Marks, a Tangipahoa Parish school bus driver, lives with her husband and teenage daughter in a subdivision southeast of Ponchatoula. In March 2016, the rising Tangipahoa River filled her house with 4 feet of water, destroying her home and belongings. They didn't have flood insurance, forcing her family to dig into their savings and rack up thousands in credit card debt for repairs.
Working with her husband and hiring laborers as needed, the family moved back into their finished home five months later. Then came the August 2016 flood. Despite living outside the 100-year floodplain, the Marks' home was inundated again.
They'd been home seven days.
Marks, 48, carried flood insurance this time around, which she said covered most of her costs to repair the house. According to documents Marks provided, the flood insurance paid about $84,000 in repairs for the August flood, but she said fixing her home after the March flood cost about $55,000, while she received just $17,000 in individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Marks was hoping Restore Louisiana, the state-run program to distribute $1.3 billion in federal aid to struggling, flooded homeowners, would help make her whole again and finish final repairs to the house.
Instead, she and three other homeowners identified by the Advocate in Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes, who suffered back-to-back floods, have been told they won't receive any money.
The problem these double-flooded homeowners are running into is that Restore Louisiana is estimating the cost of repairing their homes based on the value of repairs done after the August 2016 flood. But all four people said they spent about twice what the program is counting, since they rebuilt their houses after each disaster.
What's more, the program is subtracting the federal assistance they received from both floods. The result is all four families have been denied assistance from Restore Louisiana, despite suffering twice the damage as people who flooded in March or August alone.
"I thought claiming both (floods) would've helped us. But it's actually hurting us," said Melissa Volion of Ponchatoula.
Volion, also a school bus driver in Tangipahoa Parish who lives outside the 100-year flood plain, went into debt with her husband to fix their house twice over. She said she would be happy just to get enough money now from the program to replace her flooded air conditioner and water pump.
Three of the homeowners interviewed appealed their cases to Restore Louisiana and were denied again in letters that say the decision is final. The fourth said he is still in the appeal process.
But when presented with this unique problem by The Advocate, leaders of the Louisiana Office of Community Development, the agency administering the Restore Louisiana program, said they could reconsider the cases.
Pat Forbes, executive director of OCD, said people in this situation might be eligible for reimbursement from Restore Louisiana if they could prove what they spent renovating their homes after the March flood. The estimates used by Restore Louisiana reflect repairs since the August flood, because that is what their inspectors were able to verify, he said. Damage and repairs must be documented to support federal grant awards, he said.
When people apply, the program sends an inspector to their house to estimate the cost of repairs. They use a tool called Xactimate to create a line-item list and a potential award.
"Unfortunately, when you've got somebody who flooded in March and August, we don't have the luxury of doing an Xactimate estimate on the March damage, because we're looking at it post August floods," Forbes said.
Proof of work done after the March flood is information the homeowners would need to supply, potentially in the form of bank statements, receipts or invoices, he said.
"We've got to sort of fall back to the other approaches to documentation, because the one thing we can't do is give people money without documenting the damages and the unmet needs related to those damages," Forbes said.
With those documents, the program could split the two events and the benefits received for each, which would mean people like the Marks family might be eligible for a money award, Forbes said.
Jeff Haley, director of homeowner assistance programs for OCD's disaster recovery unit, noted that some people flooded twice but did not fix their houses between the two events. Potentially, those people used the first federal award to fix their house in the second go-around.
"There's a lot of these homeowners that this doesn't apply to them," Haley said. "They flooded in both, but they never got back in their home. So I have to count both (sets of benefits)."
Providing proof is a challenge for some of the homeowners, who said they lost their records in the August flood.
Beyond photos and some bank statements, Marks says she has little evidence of the work she did on her house. Marks said she and her husband did a lot of the construction work themselves, and many documents were ruined in the August flood.
"I could tell you this is my bank statement, but it just says I spent this much at Walmart," she said. "I find that we are in a pickle, because we can’t prove what we spent."
Marks' neighbor, Doug Quinney, is in the same situation. The 53-year-old, who is wheelchair-bound and lives on Social Security disability, said he and his accountant have estimated the cost to repair his house in March at about $55,000. He received about $15,000 from FEMA in individual assistance but otherwise paid out-of-pocket, because he did not have insurance and was denied a loan from the Small Business Administration.
Quinney said he repaired his whole house and had been home just three weeks when he flooded the second time. Insurance he bought between the floods, fortunately, paid the majority of the cost of fixing his house the second time, he said.
“It’s not like we got $15,000 from FEMA and then our house just sat here and it got flooded again and then the insurance paid to fix it," Quinney said.
The damage itself was even worse from the August flood. While he and his son were able to save some of their belongings by stacking them on beds and tables during the March flood, the water came up higher in August, destroying construction records along with the brand new appliances.
"The thing we're asking for is to be treated fairly," he said.
Tom Pettitt, a Satsuma homeowner, who also flooded twice and was told he would get zero assistance, said the Restore Louisiana officials he has dealt with have presented the alternative documentation option to him before, but only focused on the August flood.
Pettitt, 69, said it cost him about $50,000 out of pocket to restore his house after the first flood, a sum that swallowed up most of his retirement savings. He bought insurance prior to the second flood, which covered the cost of that disaster, but not the emotional toll of fixing the house again.
Haley said there are ways for these homeowners to go back and document repairs completed in the March flood, including asking contractors for their invoices and going back to construction supply stores for records.
He said it may be a matter of educating and helping those homeowners create a record.
"It’s more of a challenge for these homeowners, and it does take more time," Haley said.
It's not clear how many people are affected by this particular problem, although 3,977 households registered with FEMA for both floods.
FEMA's figure includes both homeowners and renters, including people with and without flood insurance. People facing this particular dilemma did not have insurance during the first flood.
Haley said Tangipahoa was the parish most affected by double-flooding in 2016.
The Restore Louisiana program is funded by federal grant dollars. According to the program's Jan. 26 report, Restore Louisiana has offered $164 million in grant awards to 5,814 homeowners.