The costs of natural disasters are skyrocketing. America’s systems for preparing for them and helping victims are falling short.
LAKE CHARLES, La. — Hilda Brown ambled down a wooden walkway with the help of a cane and gingerly took a seat at a table between her badly damaged house and a FEMA trailer. It had been more than a year and a half since Hurricane Laura, but the then-64-year-old widow still didn’t know where to turn.
She didn’t have the money to finish repairs on the home, which she couldn’t afford to insure. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had lent her the trailer as a temporary solution, but the deadline to return it was approaching, and she was facing the possibility of being forced to pay steep rent to keep living in it.
“It’s been hard,” Brown, who lives on Social Security benefits, told The Times-Picayune | The Advocate in April. “Everything is just bam, bam, one thing after another.”
Since Laura struck in August 2020, Lake Charles, a small city in Louisiana’s industrial southwestern corner, has served to spotlight the shortcomings in America’s system for helping communities rebuild in the wake of catastrophe.
The process of distributing key components of long-term aid — meant to help not in the first frantic days after a storm but to rebuild housing and infrastructure — is unpredictable, often caught up in battles over federal spending. As a result, the country essentially forgot one of its cities.
Lake Charles, with a population of 85,000, was Louisiana’s fifth-largest city before it was hit by a series of storms. The region’s economy was booming when Laura hit, thanks to the billions being poured into petrochemical plants and gas-export terminals, as well as a steady stream of Texans crossing the border to plunk down cash at three casinos.
But it took more than a year and a half after Laura for the federal government to approve what local officials deemed adequate long-term recovery assistance for the region. And more than two years after the storm, the first federal check from the Department of Housing and Urban Development has still not arrived.
The money has been entangled in the government’s byzantine process of doling out such long-term recovery funds, a process that can drag on for many months and get buffeted by the political priorities of congressional leadership and the White House.
In addition to the wait, it also means that communities in the wake of disaster do not know how much Congress will eventually provide, making recovery planning difficult. Appropriations can vary widely from disaster to disaster.
“[T]here’s really an unevenness and almost an unfairness in these recovery dollars,” said Andy Winkler of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank that has examined disaster assistance. The kinds of delays that Lake Charles experienced are nearly certain to be repeated — perhaps in Louisiana, perhaps somewhere else.
In a time of climate change and intensifying storms, Lake Charles’ struggles have been particularly acute. The city faced four natural disasters in less than a year, beginning with Laura, one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit Louisiana. Hurricane Delta followed six weeks later, then a severe winter storm in February 2021 and heavy flooding three months after that — all during the pandemic. One study determined that around half of all homes in Calcasieu Parish, where Lake Charles is located, were damaged by the two hurricanes.
Over the last two years, houses, apartments, public housing complexes and businesses have sat in ruins, exacerbating an affordable housing shortage. The region, which had one of the country’s fastest-growing economies before 2020, has since seen one of the nation’s largest drops in population.
Local officials resorted to pleading with Congress and the nation for help as months passed without action. Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter called it “a humanitarian crisis right here on American soil.”
Both President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden visited, but still southwest Louisiana has waited.
There have been proposals to fix the system, but the nation has been caught up in other challenges and priorities, and the two political parties rarely see eye to eye.
Hunter, who rode out Laura in Lake Charles, soon realized that the hurricane’s destruction “was basically our worst nightmare unfolding.”
“Throughout the process, I kept getting pats on the back saying: ‘Don’t worry, it’s coming. Don’t worry, it’s coming,’” Hunter said in April of assurances of long-term disaster relief. “We were let down at every turn.”
He spoke from his 10th-floor City Hall office, finally repaired a year and a half after Laura. Nearby, the housing authority was still operating out of a modular building, and Lake Charles’ biggest office tower remained boarded up and fenced off.
Recently, Hilda Brown finally received more help for her house repairs from volunteers and the disaster rebuilding nonprofit SBP, as well as a reduction on her trailer rent to $50 per month. She expected to move back into the house soon, and hoped that the federal money set to arrive in the near future could help with the remaining relatively minor work.
“It could be any day,” she said Wednesday of moving back into her house. “I’m so excited.”
“Difficult to Predict”
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, immediate federal aid is designed to flow in quickly. Federal agencies mobilize to help with search and rescue, food and water distribution, temporary housing and other tasks.
Since the two hurricanes hit southwest Louisiana in 2020, the state has drawn more than $2 billion in help from FEMA and in low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which are among the early disaster responders.
But that money falls short of addressing the region’s long-term recovery needs.
That’s where longer-term federal aid — normally distributed through what bureaucrats call CDBG-DR, or Community Development Block Grants-Disaster Recovery — comes into play. It is meant to address serious housing, infrastructure and economic development needs not covered by FEMA and insurance. Typically 70% of the funds must benefit low- to moderate-income residents, and families’ homes must be severely damaged to qualify.
But reporting by The Times-Picayune | The Advocate over more than a year in Lake Charles found significant flaws in that system.
To start with, there is no set time frame for when, or whether, the aid will be approved, leaving it to Congress and the White House. Money can be appropriated for communities in mere days, or they can wait for a year or more.
Consider: It took just 15 days for Congress to appropriate long-term aid intended for victims after Hurricane Harvey; it took 26 times as long for the federal government to agree on an aid package that included Laura.
Then, once Congress does appropriate money, it goes through a complex process to actually distribute it to communities. First, HUD must calculate how much each state, local government or Native American tribe will receive. Once those allocations are announced, HUD publishes rules for how the money can be spent. This prompts states to come up with their own spending plans, solicit and evaluate public comments, and ultimately submit those plans to HUD for approval. Only then can the money begin to flow.
This process can get caught up in budget politics and allegations of political interference. Puerto Rico, for example, faced delays in the aid disbursement process after hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 because of unusual requirements put in place after the Trump White House accused the territory’s government of being corrupt, as The Washington Post reported.
Southwest Louisiana’s congressman, Clay Higgins, a far-right Trump supporter, faced accusations of failing to do enough to have the money approved, particularly after he didn’t show up for Biden’s visit to Lake Charles in May 2021. He has defended his record.
“It always gets caught up in budget politics,” said Stan Gimont, who once oversaw HUD’s CDBG programs and is now with Hagerty Consulting. “And it just is very difficult to predict what event or what critical mass of events will move that needle for Congress to act.”
A HUD-commissioned study from 2019 found that disaster recovery grants took an average of 4.7 years to be spent, measured from the date of the disaster declaration. The study looked at disasters between 2005 and 2015.
With Laura, it took Congress 13 months after the storm to approve funding — an unusually slow process for post-hurricane long-term aid. A month later, in October 2021, HUD announced an initial allocation of around $600 million for southwest Louisiana. It then took three more months to release the rules for spending it.
It would take until March 2022 for the region to be approved for an amount Hunter said he considered equitable, $1.06 billion.
The risks of these delays are obvious. Blight worsens. Affordable housing is in short supply. Those who were already struggling to get by and who have temporarily relocated elsewhere may never return. A community survey done in the Houston area after 2017’s Hurricane Harvey showed 18% of the unsheltered homeless people who responded said they were homeless because of the storm.
Additionally, FEMA’s post-disaster programs providing trailers end after 18 months, and delays mean that people can be cut off from that help well before long-term housing aid begins to flow. That deadline can be extended in certain circumstances — as happened in southwest Louisiana — but those living in the trailers can also be asked to begin paying rent after the 18 months are up.
“People have enough trouble accessing the FEMA program,” said Sarah Saadian of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, which has closely studied post-disaster programs. But when those short-term programs end, she said, “we end up seeing people who are the lowest-income, the most marginalized, lose their housing again. They face displacement, and then in the worst cases are pushed into homelessness.”
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, whose district has been repeatedly hit by disaster, has focused his criticism on the convoluted process of disbursing the aid.
“You’ve got a process that is so ridiculous,” said Graves. “You can either spend all this time and money trying to get it perfect, or you can lean a little bit more towards getting the money out the door quickly.”
No Cash for Repairs
Allison and Charles Ned were among those who fell through the cracks.
During Hurricane Laura, they had squeezed into a friend’s house with three other families near Beaumont, Texas, about an hour away. They drove back to Lake Charles the next day, navigating trees and downed power lines — an obstacle course laid down by 150 mph winds.
For 20 years, they had rented a house in Lake Charles, where Louisiana Cajun and Creole traditions mix with Texas cowboy culture.
Allison, 57, had a cleaning service. Charles, 58, worked for a house-moving company and is now a maintenance worker for Calcasieu Parish schools. He prides himself on self-sufficiency and sports a belt buckle he won in a calf-roping competition.
When they made it home after Laura, the couple found their roof had been lifted up and set back down by the storm. It was leaking everywhere. The Neds had raised their two children there and kept two horses in the backyard along with their Akita, Champ. Charles, normally stoic, cried as he took in the damage.
For six months, they stayed at a friend’s house in Jennings, 40 minutes away. FEMA eventually provided a trailer, which they set up in the yard next to their damaged house.
Their landlord battled his insurer and decided to sell, Allison said. The Neds bought the house as is, still unrepaired and unlivable — and they didn’t have the cash to fix it.
But each time they asked for help in rebuilding, they were rejected because the system was not set up to help people in their unique situation. They did not qualify because they didn’t own the home at the time of the storm, even though they’d lived there for two decades. Allison said she wrote to the governor hoping an exception could be made, but received no response.
Charles said: “All you could do was pray to God.” He did what he could, using skills from his previous job to make the house level again.
Around 18 months after Laura, the Neds were told they would soon have to start paying rent for their FEMA trailer this spring. Under federal rules, they would have to move out of it by the end of October.
It took until early 2022 for the Neds to get a hand to rebuild, and when they did, it didn’t come from the government. Instead, the SBP nonprofit, a recovery organization founded after Hurricane Katrina, along with volunteers from organizations including the Fuller Center Disaster ReBuilders, came to their aid.
But as trying as that period was, they were on their own land, unlike others caught up in the affordable housing shortage, which long-term disaster relief can help solve.
Michael Blaney, 69, had been living in a damaged and decrepit public-housing complex for the elderly. The housing authority did not want people to live in those conditions and threatened some residents, including Blaney, with eviction, although it also attempted to find alternative housing for them. The eviction notice was eventually lifted, and Blaney remained in the complex despite the authority’s concerns; he didn’t find a new place to live until almost two years after Laura. He is now living in a privately run building for the elderly and disabled in downtown Lake Charles that didn’t reopen until April.
Many others ended up leaving the city entirely. Estimates from July 2021 show the metro area, which includes Calcasieu and Cameron parishes, had the biggest population drop in the nation that year. The two parishes combined lost 5.3% of their residents — around 11,700 people.
Finding a Permanent Solution
Criticism of the unpredictability of long-term disaster relief has come from a range of politicians and advocates seeking to change the system.
Proposed solutions often revolve around one key component: a permanent authorization of funding.
“Because it’s not a permanently authorized program, you really don’t know if it’s going to be provided for any given event, and even if it is provided, what its timing might be,” said Gimont, the former HUD official who also serves on a disaster response reform task force with the Bipartisan Policy Center.
In one proposal with bipartisan support, a fund would be made permanently available for federal block grants, eliminating the need for congressional authorization. That money could serve as a down payment, and if more is needed, Congress could step in.
The Reforming Disaster Recovery Act, sponsored by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, includes a provision for funding the block grants. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, is among the co-sponsors.
Graves, the Louisiana congressman, has offered his own proposal, co-sponsored with U.S. Delegate Stacey Plaskett, D-Virgin Islands. He, too, wants a pre-authorized set of disaster funds to be available, but favors having FEMA handle it rather than using the current block grant system.
Asked about the delays, HUD cites the lack of a readily available source of funding.
“The absence of a permanently authorized CDBG-DR program contributes to much of the delay as does the continued absence of a standing source of CDBG-DR funds, which are now only made available as supplemental appropriations rather than as an annual part of the HUD budget,” a spokesperson said in response to questions.
After such a long struggle, the community seems to have turned a corner. A number of popular restaurants and other businesses have managed to reopen. Even the assurance that long-term federal relief was finally coming seemed to provide a jolt of optimism.
Still, it’s not hard to find destruction and blue tarps in the city. Hunter, who has lived in Lake Charles his entire life, believes a bigger city with more political influence would have seen a faster response.
“Had Hurricane Laura hit another major city with more congressional support, with more population, I think things would have been very different,” he said. “And that is what I hope changes in the future.”
There should be a formula for disaster funding, he said, “versus simply the whims and the wills of Congress or the president. It shouldn’t be such a political process.”