After the floodwaters rose in Brenda Hamner’s rental house in Denham Springs during the flood, she and her family lucked into a hotel room in Baton Rouge where they could wait for the waters to recede and begin rebuilding their lives.
What little she was able to recover from her home sat in garbage bags and boxes crammed into two rooms at the La Quinta on Rieger Road, along with her husband, three children, four dogs and two cats.
Hamner’s lease on the house had expired before the floodwaters arrived Aug. 13, and she said her landlord made it clear she cannot come back. But she is also finding it difficult to move forward.
Each day, she said Thursday, she spends hours on the phone with the Federal Emergency Management Agency trying to get questions answered, and she waits for an inspector to come verify her losses so she can receive rental assistance.
Hamner said she has spent nearly every dollar the family had saved for a down payment on a new home on the pair of $550-a-week hotel rooms they have used since they were forced from their home. The hotel is not participating in FEMA’s transitional housing program, and the closest federally funded room she said she could find was in Lafayette – too far to commute to bring her children to school in Denham Springs when classes resume Sept. 12.
“If something doesn’t change come Monday, we’re going to be homeless,” Hamner said. “Day by day, we’re hanging on by prayer and faith. It’s all we’ve got left.”
Hamner and thousands of other flood survivors throughout the capital region are running into the same problems: They may be eligible for hotel and rental assistance through FEMA, but they are facing a tight rental market, a lack of FEMA-paid hotel rooms within commuting distance from their workplaces or schools, and a maze of paperwork they don’t understand.
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Residents displaced by the flooding can register with FEMA to stay in hotels at FEMA’s expense while looking for more long-term housing solutions, FEMA spokesman Alberto Pillot said. Under FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, the agency will pay the hotel directly, doling out government per-diem rates for basic rooms without room service or other amenities. Hotel guests are responsible for the extras.
FEMA also provides rental assistance for both homeowners and renters through the agency’s Individuals and Households Program, Pillot said. Residents must first register with FEMA and have their pre-flood residence inspected by the agency to determine eligibility.
“We’re encouraging homeowners to call their insurance company first because that’s what they’re paying for and FEMA does not duplicate coverage,” Pillot said.
Homeowners will need a letter of determination from their insurance companies either denying payment or detailing what losses will be covered under the policy, but they don’t have to wait to receive that letter before registering with FEMA, Pillot said.
“Go ahead and register, but the aid won’t be available until we have that letter,” he said.
Eligibility for both hotel and rental assistance depends on the determination of the FEMA inspector who visits the home to evaluate the applicant’s loss, Pillot said.
“If they haven’t had an inspector come out yet, especially if we couldn’t come out at first because we were waiting on the floodwaters to recede, they need to call that 800-number (800-621-3362) and schedule that inspection,” he said.
Financial need is not a factor in determining eligibility for hotel or rental assistance, Pillot said. The agency is looking instead at each applicant’s needs for safe and sanitary housing, with a goal of transitioning families into self-sustaining, long-term housing arrangements.
Bunking with family or friends will not affect eligibility, Pillot said.
“We’re trying to get them to a long-term housing solution,” he said. “That’s not their home, and staying with family is not a long-term solution. We’re going to give them some money so they can move out and start renting somewhere else.”
How long rental assistance will be available is determined on a case-by-case basis and depends in part on the availability of affordable housing, Pillot said. There are no caps, he said, but homeowners typically top out around 18 months of assistance, while renters usually receive rental money for two to three months.
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Statewide, 2,036 families were receiving hotel rooms courtesy of FEMA as of Thursday, Pillot said. Another 31,865 homeowners and 11,845 renters were receiving rental assistance.
But how many of those families were finding lodging in Baton Rouge remains unclear.
Not every hotel chooses to participate in FEMA’s transitional sheltering program, and an online list of participating hotels included none in Baton Rouge as of Thursday afternoon. Most of the available rooms listed were in the New Orleans, Lafayette and Shreveport areas. The closest rooms were in Hammond.
Pillot said the list is accurate but would not include hotels that already booked their FEMA-funded rooms. He could not say how many rooms had been available in the capital city since the flooding began in mid-August.
Visit Baton Rouge CEO Paul Arrigo said hotels across Baton Rouge have been "relatively full, but it's a day-to-day thing," and Downtown Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer said the downtown hotels have been booking quickly and selling out since flooding began.
Those staying in hotels are a combination of evacuees, workers in town for flood-related events and regular business travelers, the officials said.
At the La Quinta, out-of-state license plates outnumbered Louisiana tags by three-to-one on Thursday, with drivers hailing from as far as Nevada, Michigan and Florida.
Allstate auto claims adjuster Cliff White, of Orlando, Florida, said he had been staying at the hotel since Aug. 16, with no end-date in sight.
White said his work related to the flooding was “pretty much finished,” but the company had kept him staged in Baton Rouge in case Hurricane Hermine headed this way.
Staff at the 100-room hotel said they had been booked solid since the floods.
Ralph Ney, general manager of the Baton Rouge Marriott, said his hotel also has been mostly full since the floods started. He said a number of evacuees have been staying there, despite the hotel not currently being listed among FEMA’s evacuee hotels.
Ney said those staying at the Marriott registered and received approval from FEMA to be authorized for their rooms. He said the payments should come from FEMA, but he had not checked whether the hotel had received any payments from the agency yet.
Ben Blackwell, the president of the Baton Rouge Lodging Association, and John Grubb, the association's vice president, did not return messages on Thursday.
Craig Davenport, of Cook Moore & Associates, said the rental market has become equally difficult post-flood.
“As people realize this will be a longer recovery than they anticipated, they’re realizing they need an apartment,” Davenport said. “They’re seeing it’s going to be six months, not six weeks. So it’s a really tight rental market now.”
Davenport said he knew of a few rentals open in northern Baton Rouge through Latter & Blum, but otherwise, “I would say most of the city is 100 percent occupied.”
At least 25 multifamily properties were damaged in the floods, forcing landlords to move first-floor tenants into vacancies on upper floors and reducing the number of units that otherwise would have been available, he said.
Apartment buildings throughout the capital region are racking up wait lists, including two complexes in Livingston Parish that haven’t even finished construction yet, Davenport said.
“Creekside Crossing in Walker is trying to finish up so they can open up,” he said, adding that the complex already has 100-plus people on its waiting list.
Another 36-unit complex has 50 applicants waiting for an available space.
“This is not just a Baton Rouge problem; it’s a regional problem,” he said.