National News


Posted January 3, 2018 4:51 p.m. EST

BATON ROUGE, La. - Lisa White knew the repairs would be basic, and still she wasn't prepared.

"Just be careful as you're walking through," she recalled a contractor warning her as she inspected the work.

Hers was one of thousands of homes repaired under a program designed to get flood victims back into their homes quickly after fierce storms hit southern Louisiana last year.

But to White's dismay, the house was little more than a brick shell. There were huge gaps in the walls. Bare earth was visible through the exposed wooden subfloor. She and her two children couldn't live like that.

She began to wonder if she'd have to walk away from the only home she had ever owned.

This is precisely the situation Texas officials are trying to avoid as they ramp up programs to help families displaced by Hurricane Harvey find safe places to live.

Many people like the idea of funding speedy, stopgap repairs to return flood victims to their communities faster and at a lower cost to the government. Getting it right, however, has proved difficult.

Louisiana embraced the strategy after a rainstorm flooded more than 91,000 homes in August 2016. Displaced families would return to spartan but habitable dwellings: a bathroom door, a working toilet, a hot plate. That was the idea, at least.

The program, called Shelter at Home, served more than 10,000 families by the end of 2016. Yet homeowners, nonprofit leaders and state and local officials say the $157 million initiative, primarily funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, fell short in key areas.

Basic repairs proved a bit too basic: Many families were not willing to live in homes with missing walls, bare floors and fixtures held together with plywood as they waited for flood insurance payments, nonprofit assistance or other government programs to fully rebuild. And because the work was intended to be temporary, homeowners eventually had to redo much of it.

Nearly half of the program participants surveyed by the state did not quickly move back home after contractors completed their work.

Texas has learned from some of these mistakes.

In addition to offering a bare-bones program like Louisiana's, the state and FEMA have drawn up an option that provides families with more extensive, permanent repairs.

Major obstacles remain. Texas had not repaired a single home through its basic repair program as of mid-December and had completed just two homes through its more comprehensive offering. Additionally, those who witnessed Shelter at Home in Louisiana warned that problems are inevitable with efforts like Texas', in which homeowners have little say.

Home is personal, but government programs rarely are.

A nightmare summer

The summer of 2016 engulfed Baton Rouge in one horror after another.

In early July, white police officers shot and killed a 37-year-old black man, Alton Sterling, in a convenience store parking lot 2 miles from White's north Baton Rouge home. The shooting prompted weeks of protests. Then, on the other side of town, a gunman shot six police officers, killing three. Finally, in August, the rain. An unnamed storm dumped 31 inches of rain east of the Mississippi River.

White's three-bedroom house? Invaded by 21/2 feet of water. The soon-to-be mayor's home? Sixteen inches. The governor's mansion? That, too.

"It took the rich, the poor, the black, the white and drowned them," said Chris Andrews, executive director of Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge, a local nonprofit.

Louisiana suddenly had tens of thousands of flood victims and few places for them to live.

Craig Fugate, then administrator of FEMA, suggested Louisiana consider the rapid repair program pioneered in New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, state officials said.

It would provide up to $15,000 per house to remove soaked drywall, build a sink in a plywood frame, deliver a mini fridge and so on. Contractors would be state-selected, and they would be authorized to perform a predetermined menu of work. FEMA would cover 90 percent of the cost, leaving the state responsible for 10 percent.

Afraid that people might desert Baton Rouge the way they had New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Gov. John Bel Edwards gave the go ahead. More than 21,000 Louisiana families signed up.

Unlike other FEMA programs that required families to move to hotels or apartments temporarily - often putting them miles from work and school - Shelter at Home promised flood victims an opportunity to live somewhere familiar.

It also was less expensive than manufactured housing units, which kept families close to home but had become deeply unpopular after Katrina and typically ran $129,000 to $149,000 apiece.

"The idea is, I think, very, very good," said Layton Ricks, president of Livingston Parish, east of Baton Rouge. "Everybody wants to be in their home. They want to protect what they have left. They want to work on it when they come in in the evening and be right there, and you want to get the kids back in school as soon as possible, and the only way you do that is by putting them in their driveway or their front yard."

Susan Wachter, a real estate and finance professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said communities can disintegrate if residents are unable to return soon after a disaster.

"There are two damages when a storm hits," Wachter said. "The obvious one is properties are damaged. The second - less obvious but just as lethal, if not more so - is that the neighborhood is damaged. People don't want to live in a neighborhood where there are abandoned homes."

Trouble was, many of the Louisiana families who participated in Shelter at Home did not move back right away.

White, a clerk at the city courthouse, was among them. Instead, she used other FEMA assistance to rent a one-bedroom apartment 11 miles away, in south Baton Rouge. She shared a twin bed with her daughter, and her son slept on a mattress on the floor until they finally moved home in March.

'It's kind of spooky'

Almost a year and a half after the flood, White counted nine families on her block who had yet to return.

"It don't really feel like a neighborhood anymore," White, 46, said walking down her street after dark, streetlights glowing above silent homes. "It's kind of spooky."

Some Shelter at Home participants who returned home quickly also were dissatisfied with the program.

"That was a waste of money," said Yolanda Jernigan, whose family moved from a Motel 6 back into their three-bedroom home just a week after the August flood when the street was empty except for dogs and stray cats.

Jernigan and her husband signed up not knowing all the details of the program but hoped it would help.

The morning the contractors came, the Jernigans left to get breakfast at McDonald's.

"When we got back, they were ready to leave," recalled Jernigan, 54. The house had a new bathroom door, a kitchen sink on plywood legs and squares of drywall behind the electrical outlets. Otherwise, it appeared unchanged.

"We didn't understand what they did," she said.

By Christmas Eve, the state had completed repairs on most of the nearly 11,000 homes it would serve through Shelter at Home, remarkably fast for a federal repair program.

Yet homeowners and local leaders questioned the value of the investment. At up to $15,000 per household, it was a bargain if it got families back in their homes, but not if FEMA had to pay for other accommodations at the same time.

"They didn't make the houses habitable. Yeah, you could exist there. But I could live in a tent. Who wants to do that?" said Andrews, of the local nonprofit. "And think about the human cost of emotional energy, the stress factor."

Plus, much of the temporary repair work had to be ripped out when it came time to permanently rebuild homes.

"While the program was never intended to transform a home back to its original state, the fact that we were strictly limited to only temporary work left the home's appearance with much to be desired," Edwards, the governor, said in April testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "Expectations, understandably, were often far above the FEMA restrictions we were bound by."

Better in Texas?

With those criticisms in mind, Texas has coordinated with FEMA to authorize two repair programs rather than one and tried to set clearer expectations.

The first, known as Partial Repair and Essential Power for Sheltering, provides up to $20,000 for repairs for homes lightly damaged by Harvey. Just like in Louisiana, the fixes will be basic.

"Camping in your home," said Heather Lagrone, deputy director for the Texas General Land Office's Community Development and Revitalization Program.

The second program, known as Direct Assistance for Limited Home Repair, authorizes up to $60,000 for longer-term rebuilding. It's the option local and state officials prefer.

Both initiatives, however, have been undercut by bureaucratic slowdowns.

The land office and FEMA reached a final agreement for the state's basic repair program Nov. 30, long after many Texas families had gutted their flooded homes.

"I think there's still going to be some opportunity to help people," Lagrone said. "Those who have been able to take care of themselves probably have already done so."

Speed aside, Texas is likely to face pushback from homeowners seeking more flexibility in one-size-fits-all programs that have been designed to limit choice.

Many in Louisiana suggested FEMA boost direct financial assistance for home repair and allow families to select their own contractors and set priorities for rebuilding.

"If they would have given me the $15,000, I could have gotten a lot more done," White said. "I could have gotten all my sheetrock and my painting done with $15,000."

That strategy would, of course, present its own challenges.

Lagrone worried that many families "don't have the capacity to do the repairs directly themselves." And John Carleton, the FEMA official in charge of direct housing assistance in Texas, expressed concern about tracking where the money is spent.

Nevertheless, Carleton said he didn't think many ideas were off the table and added that FEMA is interested in working more closely with states to design programs.

"This is something that I think everyone agrees is the way of the future," he said. "We just need to make sure we do it smartly."

This story was reported withsupport from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that encourages reporting on responses to social problems.