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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How the government is failing Americans uprooted by calamity

Adeline Bertrand and her daughter Jazzy on the steps of their FEMA trailer outside of Lake Charles, La., on June 14, 2022. Climate change is creating a growing class of displaced Americans, and the federal government is struggling to decide how to help them.

By Christopher Flavelle

Two summers ago, Hurricane Laura wrecked Betty Swope’s modest bungalow at the edge of Lake Charles, a city surrounded by oil refineries in southwest Louisiana. The Federal Emergency Management Agency helped at first, paying for Swope and her son Adrian to stay in hotels, then putting a trailer in their yard and providing $7,000 toward fixing their house.

But that covered a fraction of what repairs would cost Swope, who is 74 and, like many storm survivors, lacked insurance. And although Congress approved extra funds for victims of Hurricane Laura, that money has yet to reach Louisiana almost two years after the disaster.

While Swope sought money to rebuild, her son, paralyzed decades earlier in a diving accident, increasingly struggled. Adrian’s room was too small to maneuver in his wheelchair, so he was confined to his bed. Over time, both his spirit and his body deteriorated.

In November, 15 months after Hurricane Laura pushed him out of his home, Adrian died. He was 47. The coroner’s report cited complications from paraplegia, but Swope blamed his isolated life in the trailer. “If we were able to get one room fixed in the house,” she said, “he would have been here still today.”

As the United States struggles to protect its citizens against the worsening effects of climate change, returning survivors to their homes after hurricanes, wildfires and other disasters has emerged as a particular failure. Money, it turns out, is not the problem. Instead, agencies are hamstrung by rules that often make little sense, even to the officials in charge.

The result is a growing class of displaced Americans, a version of domestic climate refugees, scattered across motel rooms and trailer parks, an expanding archipelago of loss.

After a disaster, the two agencies chiefly responsible for helping victims are FEMA, which focuses on emergency shelter and limited home repairs, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds long-term rebuilding. But those programs were designed in an earlier time before climate change made disasters more frequent and severe, and they are impeded now by a lack of planning and coordination.

That breakdown is reshaping many American communities: Without affordable options for permanent housing, many survivors just leave, hollowing out cities and towns.

The approach is “revictimizing disaster victims,” said Rep. Garret Graves, R-La.

A city remains in tatters

Few places demonstrate the breakdown in America’s post-disaster housing system better than Lake Charles, 30 miles north of the Gulf Coast.

In August 2020, Hurricane Laura made landfall close to Lake Charles as a Category 4 storm, causing widespread destruction. Six weeks later, Hurricane Delta struck in nearly the same spot.

In the spring of 2021, eight months after Laura, President Joe Biden flew to Lake Charles to talk about making America more resilient. “I promise you, we’re going to help you build back better than ever,” he said.

More than a year later, much of Lake Charles remains in tatters.

‘I know that we can do better’

FEMA says its main role is to supply temporary relief, not to fund permanent repairs or buy new homes for disaster survivors.

But installing and then removing a mobile home on private property costs FEMA an average of $232,800, according to the agency. A big chunk of that is for transportation and maintenance, at $30,900, and administrative overhead, at $41,200. If a trailer is situated at an RV park or other commercial site, the average cost is even higher, at $252,600.

That’s far more than constructing a new single-family home in Lake Charles at an average of $165,280, according to Census Bureau data.

Brock Long, who ran FEMA from 2017-19, said there’s a better way to help survivors.

“What if we gave the homeowner $60,000 to do the repairs to their house?” said Long, now executive chairman of Hagerty Consulting, which helps governments and businesses prepare for disasters. “If we repair the house, they can keep some equity.”

In an interview, Deanne Criswell, the current FEMA administrator, said she agreed the agency should pay to repair homes, but it needs permission from Congress. She said FEMA was working on legislative proposals.

“I know that we can do better,” Criswell said.

Limits on temporary housing

The country’s main tool for rebuilding homes is the Disaster Recovery grant program, run by HUD.

In theory, FEMA and HUD could work together to help and then house disaster victims. But the emergency agency typically limits temporary housing for survivors to 18 months, often before states have received recovery funds from HUD.

In Lake Charles, HUD grants for new homes for Hurricane Laura survivors are expected this summer, said Pat Forbes, the Louisiana official responsible for overseeing that money. It could take two years to rebuild the houses, and as long as four years to replace rental housing that was destroyed, he said.

But FEMA has told Hurricane Laura survivors to move out of its trailers by the end of October.

“The biggest problem we have in disaster-recovery funding is the gap between sheltering, if you will, and permanent housing,” said Forbes, head of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development. “It’s ridiculous.”

Part of the delay is Congress, which didn’t provide HUD with money for Hurricane Laura victims until more than a year after the storm. HUD then began a monthslong process of writing rules for spending the money. Louisiana then submitted a plan to meet those rules, but HUD didn’t approve that plan until this month.

Facing a FEMA eviction

The slow pace of reconstruction money hurts people such as Adeline Bertrand, who was living in a rented duplex in Lake Charles when Hurricane Laura hit.

She fled with her two daughters to a series of hotels in Dallas and then Houston. After she ran out of money, one of the hotels let her work as a security guard, “just to try to have a room for me and my girls to sleep.” Her daughter Jazzy was 3 years old, and her daughter Allison was 20.

Last March, after six months without a home, FEMA let Bertrand and her daughters move into a trailer on a gravel lot west of Lake Charles. She got a job nearby, and wants to move her family into an apartment. But the storm decimated the city’s rental housing, causing demand for remaining units to jump, along with rents.

Bertrand’s old two-bedroom duplex cost $1,000 a month; today, a similar apartment is $1,500, she said, more than she can afford. Still, FEMA has told Bertrand that she and her daughters must vacate their trailer by October.

Bertrand is rooted to Lake Charles, where she also cares for her 70-year-old mother. “I just don’t want to leave her,” she said.

Among those who have already moved out of their FEMA trailer is Swope.

A few months after her son died, FEMA told Swope to start paying almost $900 in rent or vacate the trailer. Her house wasn’t finished, but Swope’s monthly Social Security check was just $905, so she moved back into the house anyway.

“I mean, make up your mind,” Swope said. “Are you going to help us, or are you going to get all your trailers back?”

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