Louisiana struggles a month after devastating US floods

Piles of debris and rubbish line streets in flood-hit neighbourhoods as repairs move at a snail’s pace.

Louisiana residents hit hard by flooding have to gut their homes to prevent moulding [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]
Louisiana residents hit hard by flooding have to gut their homes to prevent moulding [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

Baton Rouge, United States –  Beyond an immense mound of destroyed belongings and rotting wood sitting in the yard across from her home, Mary Mercado puts out food and water for her neighbour’s cat.

It has been a month since this part of Louisiana was submerged by floods, and Mercado has been coming back daily to feed pets and check on her home.

Like most other houses on the block and throughout the Sherwood neighbourhood, hers was so badly damaged that it is still uninhabitable.

“Losing everything and stuff – it was just horrible,” Mercado told Al Jazeera, lifting up her mobile phone to show an image of her water-filled home after historic rainfall hit Baton Rouge on August 12.

Thirteen people died in the disaster and upwards of 100,000 homes were damaged.

Much like in other neighbourhoods across eastern Baton Rouge and in nearby towns, both sides of the streets are lined with damaged cars, immense piles of debris and moulding mountains of rubbish.

Mary Mercado, right, and her daughter Jackie come to their home each day to make sure nothing is stolen [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

At the height of the crisis, an estimated 11,000 people took refuge in shelters.

According to The Advocate, a local newspaper, at least 850 are still in such centres across the city and the nearby communities of Livingston, Ascension, East Feliciana and Tangipahoa, among others.

Inside her home, Mercado pointed to a line more than a metre and a half up on the doorsill showing how high the water reached in the living room. The home’s interior has been stripped of drywall, carpet and wooden floor panels.

“We are staying in a hotel because unfortunately we don’t have family members here in town,” Mercado, a mother of two, said. 

“We have to pay [for the hotel] out of pocket,” she said, explaining that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided her family with a small amount of financial assistance.

“When you’re not prepared financially … then it’s hard. FEMA gives you just a limited amount,” she continued.

“I’m just hoping it will take us about two or three months [to fix the home] because I can’t live in a hotel too long.”

READ MORE: US declares disaster for Louisiana floods

FEMA says federal assistance to Louisiana communities has surpassed $1bn, with more than 63,000 families receiving grants to help pay for temporary rent, home repairs or other disaster-related needs.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards says the floods caused roughly $8.7bn in damage

In downtown Baton Rouge, the River Center was one of dozens of places turned into impromptu shelters for displaced people. The residents will be transferred from the convention centre to another shelter later this week.

Roberto Baltodano, a regional communications officer for the American Red Cross, said 236 people were still living in the River Centre as of Sunday. 

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Baltodano said the “vast majority” of people who are still in shelters are “low-income families” who cannot afford to rent hotels or find alternative accommodation.

“You will find a wide range of emotions … we have a lot of uncertainty,” Baltodano said as he walked through the hall, with hundreds of cots covering the floor.

Some of the temporary residents slept while others organised their belongings before the move to another facility.

Immobile cars are parked in yards and on sidewalks throughout Baton Rouge neighbourhoods [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

After the floods hit Baton Rouge, US President Barack Obama toured some of the worst-hit parts of the city, pledging federal support to repair the damage. 

But some flood victims and politicians have criticised the emergency response efforts of FEMA, as well as local and state authorities.

John Mica, a Republican congressman from Florida, called FEMA’s efforts “pitiful” after visiting some of the affected areas.

Several of Louisiana’s state legislators have also accused FEMA of dragging its feet.

Clay Schexnayder, a Republican who represents hard-hit neighbourhoods in East Baton Rouge, blasted federal authorities for setting up only one mobile home during the first three weeks after the floods.

“Having one trailer set up so far out of all of this, one trailer, where I’m from I don’t call that satisfactory at all,” he said late last month.

Rafael Lemaitre, a FEMA spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that the agency is “providing a wide array of federal support for the state of Louisiana,” adding that the recovery effort has received support from many Democrats and Republicans alike.

“We are under no illusions that this is going to be a quick recovery. We were there before the news cameras arrived and we will be there long after they leave,” he said.

Bernice Taylor and her husband John have been staying with a family friend for the past month [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera] 

In the Sherwood neighbourhood of the East Baton Rouge Parish, cars are left in the front yards. Scrawled in spray paint across the front windshield of an old, maroon Cadillac sedan is a message for the city’s clean-up teams: “Do not tow”. 

Bernice Taylor dragged a pair of ruined dresser drawers out of her home and tossed them on to her lawn to be picked up.

“It has never flooded,” she said of her neighbourhood, where her family has lived for the past 37 years.

“Ninety percent of our neighbours don’t have [flood] insurance. And it’s not because of negligence – it’s because they were never in a flood zone.”

Taylor and her husband John, a retired electrician who also lost his pick-up lorry during the floods, said they expect to stay at a friend’s home for another three months before they can finish repairing their house.

“The only thing I got from FEMA was living expenses,” John Taylor told Al Jazeera, sitting on a rocking chair in the hollowed-out frame of his home.

“It doesn’t make me happy, but I can live with my losses … I learned a lot from them.

“It’s sad to see a person who’s lost everything and he’s in a [financial situation] that he can’t get anything.”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter:   @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera


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