In the coming days, state-directed crews will begin clearing drywall, ripping up carpets, inspecting electrical systems and performing other small-scale repairs to get people back into their flood-ravaged homes. And all of it will come for free for those homeowners in a program the state is testing for the first time.
"Shelter At Home" was unveiled this week as a key component of the state's plan for addressing the needs of thousands of flood victims who have been displaced from their homes, while also lessening the burden on an already squeezed housing market. The idea is to get homes into a habitable state, so people can live there while they make more permanent repairs on their own dime.
The state and federal partnership will be the first time that such a program has been used in Louisiana – though a similar effort faced mixed reviews when it was used in New York following Superstorm Sandy and faced criticism over questionable repair quality.
State leaders are responding to the housing crunch that has followed mass flooding across So…
Officials here have touted it as a key piece to Louisiana's post-flood housing puzzle.
"Everybody wants to go home if they can," Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday, noting he expects crews will be in homes by Monday, when Shelter At Home is set to formally launch.
Since catastrophic flooding swept across South Louisiana earlier this month, thousands of people have been forced to live in hotels, rental properties or large shelters.
The Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness estimates that many as 160,000 homes have been affected by the flood. Already, more than 120,000 households have applied for federal disaster assistance.
State and federal leaders say that the program will help people return to their communities and settle back into their lives.
"The housing issue is significant to the extent we have to come up with some unique ideas," said Mark Riley, the deputy director of GOHSEP.
If a home can be back in a livable state with up to $15,000 in repairs, then the state will OK the work and a crew will be sent out to do the work.
The program only covers minor repair work: basic electrical and plumbing inspections; carpet and insulation removal; air conditioning and hot water heater repairs; and installing temporary bathroom fixtures, are among the types of tasks they will consider.
The program will also pay for mini-refrigerators or microwaves to be installed to serve as makeshift kitchen appliances.
Riley said that the state will hire a project manager over the weekend. An estimated four-to-seven general contractors will then be hired, and they are expected to then hire sub-contractors to help with the work.
The homeowners merely fill out the required information when the program goes live via a state-run state website or by phone.
"All the homeowner has to do is express an interest and we will do the work," Riley said.
Riley said that the program has been modeled off of "Rapid Repairs" – a program that popped up in response to Superstorm Sandy. The Louisiana flood has been called the worst natural disaster since that storm struck in 2012.
According to congressional testimony during a hearing on Sandy recovery, New York City's version of the program managed to within 90 days restore heat, hot water and electricity to nearly 20,000 residential units, paving the way for thousands of New Yorkers to return to their homes.
The program was seen as of particular significance for Manhattan, where space is at a premium and room for sheltering people is scarce.
But the program didn't come without complaints.
All of them featured people complaining that government-funded repairs had left their homes with potentially dangerous conditions and in desperate need of additional fixes.
Riley said that Louisiana had to "talk FEMA into" agreeing to try the housing repair program here. Others downplayed the negotiations as merely attempting to reach the right fit for the state's needs.
"We had to convince them there was a real need for it here," Riley said after a state legislative hearing on the flood on Thursday.
Riley said that there was a perception of problems in the New York program that gave reason for pause before attempting something similar here, but he said the needs were similar in that a large population has been displaced with no housing stock to meet the increased demand.
Riley said that the $15,000 cap was one point the federal government required to agree to it. The cap had been higher in New York, he noted.
Edwards downplayed the concerns stemming from the earlier iteration.
The cramped, camper-style FEMA trailers, which evoke nightmarish memories for Hurricane Katr…
"We worked very hard with FEMA and the folks in New York and New Jersey to fashion a program here that took advantage of their lessons learned," the governor told The Advocate on Thursday.
He said that any contractors would be licensed and have to meet standards and regulations.
But Edwards said it's also important for people to keep in mind the goal of the program.
"People's expectations need to be in line with what the program is. This program is not designed to go in and repair everything in your home. It is designed to make your home safe and livable and secure so that you can shelter there and live in your communities where your kids can go to their schools and you can go to your church," he said. "I don't want anybody thinking that when this crew comes in that they are going to leave a home that no longer shows any effects of the flooding. That's not the case."
"Part of this is managing expectations but we're not going to put up with shoddy work because we're not paying for shoddy work," Edwards added.
Gerry Stolar, the regional coordinator for FEMA said that the "Shelter At Home" program won't work for everyone. He said that different options were developed to meet various needs.
"It can't be one solution for all," he said. "We're trying to get as many feasible options as possible."
While homeowners will pay nothing, the state will be on the hook for 25 percent of the total cost, and the federal government will kick in 75 percent.
Edwards has requested that President Barack Obama lower Louisiana's share of the cost from 25 percent to 10 percent, with the federal government picking up the rest of the tab.
But unless that is granted, the state will be on the hook for whatever 25 percent of the total cost turns out to be. That request has not been acted on yet.
State legislators have largely responded to the program positively.
Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, spoke highly of the program and said he thought it would be beneficial to people.
"Most people do want to live in their homes if they are going to repair it or very near," said White, who chairs the Homeland Security committee and is running for Baton Rouge mayor.
Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said she worries that people are living in their cars or in unsafe homes – just to avoid a prolonged stay in a shelter.
"I'm just really concerned about the whole housing piece," she said. "Our housing stock was already extremely limited before this flood."
"Most people aren't staying in shelters. they are staying with family members or their trucks or cars or in those homes," she said.