Kevin Kennedy stepped out of his red Ford Expedition on Tuesday morning into the parking lot of Louisiana’s “reception center” for storm evacuees, a mega-shelter in Alexandria, and steadied himself with a wooden cane.

He and his partner, Shirley Singleton, had recently been told to leave the Dallas hotel the government put them up in nearly two months ago, as Hurricane Laura prepared to make landfall not far from their home in Westlake. Since making it to the Alexandria shelter, they had been filling out paperwork and talking with federal officials about their next steps. Their truck was packed with the things they could fit when they left home in August.

“I’d just like to be somewhere stable,” said Kennedy, 58, who donned a blue surgical mask and overalls.

Once they arrived at the mega-shelter, a mammoth five-acre structure on a rural LSU AgCenter property in Alexandria, Kennedy and Singleton came face-to-face with an all-hands effort by Louisiana’s government to put storm victims in more permanent housing.

After staying in hotels for nearly two months, while hurricanes roiled their southwest Louisiana homes, many evacuees are being told to go back to Lake Charles.

That process has proved complex and at times frustrating for evacuees, some of whom have been away from home since August. After Hurricane Delta delayed the return home for many, the state recently restarted bus trips to and from the Alexandria shelter, New Orleans, Lake Charles and Texas, where storm victims have been scattered. Hundreds have filtered in and out of the mega-shelter in recent weeks, as it serves as a central stop along the various routes.

In New Orleans, some Lake Charles evacuees who have stayed in state-provided hotels since Laura blasted southwest Louisiana received text messages Saturday telling them their hotel room will “come to an end” on Oct. 20th. “It is time to return home to your residence,” the text read.

“There’s nothing there,” said 48-year-old Margarita Garcia, who was outside of the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, using a letter from her landlord documenting the damage to try to prove she didn’t have a place to go back to. “That house is not safe for me or my kids or anybody to go to.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration is expected to have brought all evacuees in Texas back to Louisiana this week, and officials recently consolidated the hotels in Louisiana to a dozen, mostly in New Orleans.

State officials say people won’t be left without a place to stay, and that the messages telling them to come back to Lake Charles is part of the process for determining whether people can stay in damaged homes, or whether they need a hotel or other housing for the longer-term. 

Casey Tingle, chief of staff at the governor's emergency department, said the state will have hotels for people with major damage to their homes through likely the end of the year. The people being told to leave hotels have been determined to have minor or moderate damage, he said. If they disagree upon returning, they can appeal that decision to try to get back into a hotel. 

"It's not that anybody is running out of money" for the hotel program, Tingle said. "It's that the operation has to be right-sized ... We have to get the people back if they can be back." 

Tingle added the state will likely work to establish hotels closer to people's homes in southwest Louisiana. 

But figuring out the appropriate housing for the thousands of evacuees who sought out the state’s help when fleeing the storm has taken some evacuees on a winding and stressful route.

For Kennedy and Singleton, it will likely involve another trip to their home in Westlake soon. They stopped at home by themselves on the way from Texas to find the duo of hurricanes had taken its toll on their apartment building. The tarp that was fastened to the roof after Hurricane Laura was blown off when Hurricane Delta rolled through the town weeks later. On the inside, Kennedy, who is on disability, said mold and mildew were rampant. The power was out.

Despite the damage they saw, they may be told to go back to live there, though they can ask for a reassessment from an official from the state Fire Marshal’s office. The state may ultimately determine the apartment is livable – a government document passed out to victims says mold is not reason enough to dub the home uninhabitable. Kennedy and Singleton could be told to stay. If the two appeal and the state decides it’s not habitable, the two will likely go back to the shelter in Alexandria to be processed for yet another hotel, probably in New Orleans.

So far, 177 people have requested reassessments of their homes, said fire marshal spokeswoman Ashley Rodrigue. Of the 46 that have been completed, 26 have been upgraded to "major" damage, which warrants a hotel stay. 

Daniel Doyle, the lead area manager for the Department of Children and Family Services, overseeing the Alexandria shelter, said the buses leaving the mega-shelter, including two Tuesday morning, drop evacuees off at a “collection point” in Lake Charles. Once there, the people board city buses to go to their homes. Then, if they can’t stay, they head back to the collection point to board another bus to Alexandria. Then, officials process them again, potentially to go to a hotel in New Orleans, he said.

The shelter itself has a host of coronavirus precautions in place. Doyle stood near a pile of cots waiting to be sanitized. The cots and dining tables have been spaced out inside and the capacity whittled to fewer than 900, a fraction of the nearly 3,000 it typically holds. Announcements blare over the loudspeakers inside once an hour reminding evacuees masks are required.

Ricky Montet, director of emergency preparedness for the Department of Children and Family Services, said it’s hard to say how long it will take to get everyone either back home or into a more permanent living situation, though officials are aiming for late October. It will depend on how many people discover their homes have more damage than the state first thought, when officials did an initial assessment from the outside.

“People want to get back home,” Montet said.

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As of Monday, 6,558 Louisiana residents were in shelters, according to the Department of Children and Family Services. That included 97 Delta evacuees in the Alexandria mega-shelter and 27 in a New Orleans hotel. Another 5,500 Laura evacuees were in hotels, mostly in New Orleans, 32 Laura evacuees were at the Alexandria shelter and 910 were in Texas. Most of the evacuees in Texas had been brought back to Louisiana Monday and Tuesday, and most Laura evacuees in New Orleans hotels who were thought to have minor damage will be brought back by bus on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Dick Gremillion, the top emergency official in Calcasieu Parish, said the goal is simple: find out whether people have minor or major damage to their homes. If they have minor damage, they should be able to hunker down in the homes. If the hurricane took too great a toll, they’ll be put up in a hotel, or potentially a manufactured housing unit or other temporary space.

“The main problem on this end (is) there’s no place to put people,” Gremillion said. “A lot of dwellings were damaged and we have no public buildings to put people because our public buildings were damaged as well.”

“Housing is our number one issue right now. So many homes were destroyed or damaged.”

Ahead of Delta making landfall, Gov. Edwards said people wouldn’t be at the Alexandria mega-shelter for more than 24 hours before they were put up in hotels.

But James Hebert, a 70-year-old who rode out Laura but boarded a state bus to the mega-shelter ahead of Delta, said he’s been at the shelter for a week and a half. He’s hoping to leave – either to a rental property he found or to a state-provided shelter – in the coming days.

“I bear with it,” he said.

Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for Edwards, said the administration "wouldn't operate the Alexandria shelter if we didn't think it could be done safely and if we didn't absolutely have to." She said there "may be situations" where people are in a congregate shelter for longer than the administration hoped but she pointed to the COVID precautions at the Alexandria shelter. 

Madrikia Bland was likely to meet the 24-hour stay Edwards promised. She stood outside the shelter Tuesday morning with her children, Derrick, 7, and Malika, 6. Each had a black trash bag full of belongings at their feet.

The family had arrived the day earlier from Dallas, where they were sheltering in a state-provided hotel before being told to leave for Alexandria and begin the process of finding a place to stay in Louisiana.

Bland visited home two weeks ago to discover her house in Lake Charles had been torn up from Laura. She hasn’t worked at her job in home health in Lake Charles since August 26th, three days before Laura made landfall.

She planned to head to Lake Charles Tuesday, at the direction of state officials, and accompany the Fire Marshal on a damage assessment of her home. If the home is considered to have major damage, she’ll likely be routed back through the mega-shelter before landing in a New Orleans hotel.

“I’d rather be in Lake Charles,” she said. “I just hope the fire marshal comes the same day as us or we’re sleeping in the car.”

Staff writer Emily Woodruff contributed to this report.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com