CHAUVIN – Leroy Picou spends most of his time perched on his porch, listening to swamp pop alongside his pooch, watching utility trucks and debris contractors drive back and forth – and avoiding the inside of his mold- and mildew-infested home.
Hurricane Ida’s catastrophic path ran roughshod through this tight-knit bayou community near the coast, but like many other survivors living here six weeks out from the storm, Picou has few options to turn to for shelter.
The nearest vacant hotels are hours away, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency isn’t expected to deliver the bulk of its mobile homes until the spring. Thirty miles up the road, congregate bed space is available in the Houma-Terrebonne Civic Center, but for many, that’s too far.
Some are sleeping in their cars or make-shift tents next to piles of rubble, while others – including the 59-year-old Picou – are sticking it out in what’s left of their storm-ravaged homes, breathing in toxic clouds of mold and mildew.
Louisiana is hoping to change that, pouring millions of dollars into an experiment that could reinvent how the government responds to natural disasters and get travel trailers onto survivors' properties quicker.
A short walk from Picou’s home, just across the bayou, a frenzied crew of state contractors worked around-the-clock Friday to transform a park pavilion into a make-shift village, with on-site catering and laundry, bathrooms and showers, and a dozen air-conditioned tents capable of sleeping up to 100 people.
Tessie Griffin, who hails from Bourg in Terrebonne Parish, set up a tent down on the road in Point-Aux-Chenes after Hurricane Ida destroyed he…
It’s the first of a several base camps the state plans to set up in the coming weeks in communities hardest hit by Ida located along the finger-like waterways that stretch into the Gulf of Mexico. Each site will look different, but the goal is the same: provide survivors with a safe place to eat, sleep and shower closer to home.
Typically, after a natural disaster, FEMA provides survivors money for hotel rooms or temporary housing, but Ida was so devastating that the closest hotels available for storm victims are two hours away in Picayune, Mississippi. Out of 13,818 survivors in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes eligible for a hotel stay, only 11% were checked into a room Friday.
“From our perspective, the most effective recovery is the recovery that happens closest to home,” said Casey Tingle, deputy director at the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “If a household is three hours away, you’re limiting their ability to contribute to their own recovery.”
Over the next several weeks, Louisiana will begin distributing its own travel trailers and RVs. The state has already purchased 400 units at a price of $14 million. Another $9 million has been set aside to hire a program manager, Aptim Environmental & Infrastructure. FEMA will fully cover those costs until Wednesday, Oct. 13, and after that, Louisiana will have to cover 10% of expenses.
The state-led effort is aimed at bridging the gap until FEMA can begin providing its own mobile homes. It won’t be until mid-November until the FEMA units start arriving and then they’ll only be placed after clearing a number of bureaucratic hurdles, such as not being in a flood zone. If last year’s recovery in Lake Charles is any marker, it could be well into April before most survivors are housed in federal assets.
Tingle said Louisiana hopes to fold its own stock of travel trailers into FEMA’s efforts, and officials are working behind the scenes to determine how the units can be handed off seamlessly without disrupting living arrangements.
The overlapping effort marks the first time Louisiana – or any other state – has been this involved in providing direct housing after a storm. If it’s successful, the program could offer a quicker roadmap for getting survivors housed following a natural disaster, with state contracts in place ahead of the event.
But more than a month out from Ida’s destruction, frustrations remain over how long it took the program to get up-and-running. For a federal agency like FEMA, six weeks is fast, but when you’re living without a roof over your head, “that’s damn near turtle pace,” said Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, R-Houma.
"We can put people on the moon, like the famous saying, but we can't figure out travel trailers in Terrebonne Parish," Magee said. "The fundamental role of government is to provide a basic level of safety to people."
For a place that is so often pummeled by storms, Louisiana should have these issues solved by now, Magee said.
In the place of government, nonprofits like the Hache Grant Association have stepped in. The group is spending more than $20,000 a month to rent a mobile shower, bathroom and laundry unit so survivors living in the remote-area near Pointe-aux-Chênes have a place to refresh.
“Shouldn’t either the National Guard, FEMA, GOHSEP, somebody have this contract or have this available?” Magee said.
Christopher Pulaski, director of planning and zoning for Terrebonne Parish, who is helping to set-up the base camps on-the-ground, said these sort of contracts should have been "at the ready" ahead of hurricane season.
“When you look around, and see people sleeping under their FEMA tarps, that really hurts to see,” Pulaski said.
It's no secret that FEMA can be slow.
"From the family's perspective, those impacted by the storm, none of this is quick enough. And I think we all recognize this," Tingle said, adding that the rules FEMA has to follow under the Stafford Act don't "easily allow them to execute as quickly."
Still, Tingle credited the federal agency with agreeing to allow GOHSEP to purchase the travel trailers under an existing COVID-era cost-sharing agreement. And he said Louisiana is using the opportunity to prove how the program can be helpful in the future.
Pulaski said he doesn't doubt FEMA's desire to help, but he said the agency sometimes appears disorganized. Three different officials called him asking the same question about permits.
Houma Rep. Tanner Magee has weathered many a hurricane in his lifetime but says Hurricane Ida was the most destructive, leveling Terrebonne an…
Further down the bayou, Cindy and Gary Picou finished their morning ritual sifting through the pile of rubble that used to be their double-wide trailer. The modest pool house at the back of the property survived the storm – “because I built it,” Gary said – but not much else.
The couple has relied on friends and family for a place to sleep since the storm, but most of their time is spent back at their property, searching for anything salvageable, like the linoleum flooring they fashioned into a makeshift sink next to their butane stove. They set up a shower so they can clean up before spending the night elsewhere.
She doesn’t like having to crash with others, but Cindy said she’s too scared to go to the base camp up the road. “The world is crazy right now,” she said. She doesn’t want to share a tent with a stranger.
More than 4,000 people have signed up for the state's travel trailer program. It's less clear how successful the base camps will be. The site in Chauvin officially opened to the public Friday night, but nobody showed up, Pulaski said.
Sitting on his porch, a stone’s throw from the base camp, Leroy Picou said he’s staying put. He’s beginning to run out of cash to buy fuel for his generator, but he doesn’t want to abandon his property, even if it’s a short walk away.
“I’m going to stay right here,” Picou said. “I was born and raised right here.”