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In flood zone, many Louisiana families yearn to return home

Posted November 23

Abigail Howell, 11, and her brother, Andrew, 9, play games on the floor near the bathroom, which doubles as a kitchen, while their mother, Angie, cooks with two crockpots in the family's hotel room in Denham Springs, La., Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. "They're so sick of being here and trapped. They want to be home so bad," Angie said of her children. "I hate the idea that we're going to be staying here for Thanksgiving and Christmas." (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

— Before the floods came, Ashleigh Dickerson's family lived in a three-bedroom house on a private road with plenty of room for her children to play.

These days, the school bus drops her 10-year-old daughter off at a motel in Denham Springs, Louisiana, where a parking lot next to a truck stop is the closest thing to a playground.

Dickerson, her husband and their three children are among dozens of families making due at the Highland Inn after losing their homes, at least temporarily, to a storm that has been called the worst in the U.S. since Superstorm Sandy.

Families take turns cooking in crock pots, and they share meals. They babysit each other's kids and look after the elderly. But strive as they might for some semblance of normalcy, reminders of the upheaval in their lives are everywhere. Dishes are washed in bathtubs; siblings begrudgingly share beds; eighteen-wheelers rattle the walls. Only recently did the motel drain the swimming pool of floodwaters that filled it with fish.

Dickerson, 37, is grateful that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is paying for two rooms for her family, but she yearns to go home. She and her husband, Jimmy, are waiting for FEMA to provide them with a mobile home so they can move back to their property with their three children while it is being rehabilitated.

Meanwhile, they're pinching pennies to survive on Jimmy Dickerson's monthly $800 disability benefits.

Jimmy, who suffers from a degenerative back condition, remained hopeful.

"We're together. That's the main part. We're OK," he said.

Tens of thousands of homes in south Louisiana were damaged during a two-day mega-storm that began Aug. 12 and dumped as much as 2 feet of rain in some areas.

As of Nov. 14, FEMA was paying for roughly 2,150 Louisiana families to live in hotel or motel rooms through the agency's Transitional Sheltering Assistance program. Nearly 1,500 families are living in government-supplied mobile homes, while nearly 67,000 households are getting rental assistance from FEMA, according to agency spokesman Kurt Pickering.

Guests at the Highland Inn were relieved to learn they wouldn't be losing their free rooms. At the state's request, FEMA agreed to extend its housing assistance from Nov. 18 to Dec. 17. But some families at the inn said they don't know what they will do if the assistance runs out before their homes are repaired.

Kelly Amoroso, 54, said she and her husband, Nick, let out a "happy scream" when the news broke that FEMA had extended its program by 30 days. They're still waiting for their landlord to repair their home, which took on four feet of water.

"We're going to go home. We've got faith," she said.

Forty of the 48 rooms at the Highland Inn were occupied by FEMA aid recipients last week. Many guests have been there for at least two months.

Daniel and Angie Howell and their seven children are sharing two rooms and using a third for storage. The cramped conditions have tested their patience as they wait for their landlord to finish fixing their rental property.

"They're so sick of being here and trapped," Angie Howell, 42, said of her children. "I hate the idea that we're going to be staying here for Thanksgiving and Christmas."

The family initially stayed in rooms on the motel's second floor even though Daniel Howell, 32 and a paraplegic, had to drag himself — and his wheelchair — up the stairs. He suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

"There were days that I never got out of bed except to go to the bathroom and move around the room a little bit, because I was in fear of falling down the stairs," he said.

They recently moved into rooms on the ground floor, after the motel finished refurbishing them.

Although FEMA is footing their motel bill, the Howells still have to pay their monthly $1,350 rent or risk losing the home. They doubt they could find anything cheaper for a family of nine now that the region's housing stock is depleted and prices have soared.

"We have nowhere to go," Daniel Howell said. "This is our last hope."

But families like the Howells and the Dickersons have found strength through friendship — friendship forged in the face of common hardship.

"There's no way we couldn't be friends," said Ashleigh Dickerson, "after the hard things we've been through."

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