How the Government Is Failing Americans Uprooted by Natural Disaster
LAKE CHARLES, La. — 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 Ms. Swope and her son Adrian to stay in hotels, then putting a trailer in their yard and providing about $7,000 toward fixing their house.
But that covered a fraction of what repairs would cost Ms. Swope, who is 74 and, like many storm survivors, lacked insurance. And though Congress approved extra funds for victims of Hurricane Laura, that money has yet to reach Louisiana almost two years after the disaster.
While Ms. Swope sought money to rebuild, her son, paralyzed decades earlier in a diving accident, increasingly struggled. Adrian’s room was too small to maneuver into 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 Ms. 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 “re-victimizing disaster victims,” said Garret Graves, a Republican congressman from Louisiana.
Biden administration officials say they’re trying to improve the patchwork of post-disaster housing programs. FEMA has a working group focused on housing, and the White House has asked Congress to create a permanent program to pay for home rebuilding.
The consequences are far-reaching: Some 35 million homes, almost one-third of the nation’s housing stock, are at high risk for disasters, according to the data firm CoreLogic.
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After promises of help, 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.
More than a year later, much of Lake Charles remains in tatters.
The main thoroughfares are lined with smashed-up strip malls, motels and gas stations. The city’s tallest building, the 22-floor Capital One Tower, is fenced off, half its windows boarded up.
But most striking are the houses. Seen from above, Lake Charles is dotted with blue tarps; from the street, residential blocks are punctuated by crumbled brick facades.
The shortage of homes is holding back the overall recovery, according to Bryan C. Beam, the administrator for Calcasieu Parish, which includes Lake Charles. The parish lost between 8,000 and 12,000 housing units to the hurricane, according to Mr. Beam, a significant number for a community of about 200,000 residents.
Without places to live, workers left, Mr. Beam said. Without people to hire, businesses haven’t returned either. Lake Charles has shrunk by an estimated 5,000 people, to about 80,000 residents.
Mr. Beam’s biggest concern is “a great loss of people that we won’t get back.”
‘I know that we can do better’
When Hurricane Laura struck, Rene Wimberly owned a mobile home just south of Lake Charles. The storm left the structure unlivable, and Ms. Wimberly had no insurance. So she went to sleep on her mother’s couch.
“She’s got a really small house,” Ms. Wimberly said. “I had a hard time.” After six months, FEMA offered her a temporary trailer outside of the city.
Ms. Wimberly was luckier than most: It took 10 months for FEMA to house all the people eligible for help after being displaced by the storm, according to Nic Hunter, the Lake Charles mayor.
Ms. Wimberly said she appreciates FEMA’s help. But she thinks there was a cheaper solution.
FEMA provided about $21,000 toward restoring Ms. Wimberly’s mobile home, about two-thirds of total repair costs, she said. The agency also paid more than $3,000 a month for her to stay in a trailer west of Lake Charles, where she still lives, Ms. Wimberly said — rent that now adds up to about $45,000, and counting.
It might have been better for everyone if FEMA just bought Ms. Wimberly a mobile home, which would have eliminated her need to live away from her property for almost two years, she said.
“It would have been easier to do that than all the blood, sweat and tears,” said Ms. Wimberly, who has yet to move back in. “And it would have been less cost to them.”
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 R.V. 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 to 2019, 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 Mr. Long, who is 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 needs permission from Congress. She said FEMA was working on legislative proposals.
“I know that we can do better,” Ms. Criswell said.
Pushed out of temporary shelter
The country’s main tool for rebuilding homes is the Disaster Recovery grant program, run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
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 Housing and Urban Development.
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 Mr. Forbes, head of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development. “It’s ridiculous.”
Part of the delay is Congress, which didn’t provide Housing and Urban Development with money for Hurricane Laura victims until more than a year after the storm. The department 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.
Federal officials readily acknowledge that the system works poorly. HUD officials say they have worked to shorten the time it takes to award funds after Congress makes that money available. Mr. Biden wants Congress to make Disaster Recovery grants automatically available for disasters of a certain scale, and to create a permanent funding source.
That proposal has met opposition, including from Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the committee that oversees HUD, who argues that making it easier for the department to spend money on disaster recovery would encourage waste.
In a statement, Abdullah Hasan, a White House spokesman, defended the administration’s efforts in Lake Charles. “The Biden administration has already delivered hundreds of millions of dollars to the community, with even more on the way,” he said. “We know that for families looking to return to their daily lives that the pace of recovery can never be fast enough.”
Facing a FEMA eviction, with nowhere to go
The slow pace of reconstruction money hurts people like 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 older daughter, Allison, was 20.
Last March, after six months without a home, FEMA let Ms. 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.
Ms. 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 Ms. Bertrand that she and her daughters must vacate their trailer by October.
Ms. 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.
‘Then we’ll all be homeless’
Ms. Bertrand’s predicament isn’t unusual. Hurricane Laura destroyed the mobile home near Lake Charles that Gwendelyn Robicheaux, 59, shared with her partner, Carrie Beauregard, and their three children.
The family had no insurance; after eight months of staying with relatives, FEMA provided a trailer. The new home is tight, with three small bedrooms and a central space that is kitchen, living room and dining room.
But since the hurricane, the cost of mobile homes in southwest Louisiana has jumped by 50 percent; replacing their old home is out of reach. Ms. Robicheaux works for the school district, and Ms. Beauregard receives disability payments; the family doesn’t earn enough to even rent a home.
This spring, FEMA notified Ms. Robicheaux that her family had until October to clear out. “And then we’ll all be homeless,” she said.
FEMA sells most of its vacated mobile homes instead of reusing them. Most are sold for about 10 to 15 percent of what it cost FEMA to provide them, including hauling, installation and the trailer itself, based on agency data.
FEMA could extend the time that people like Ms. Robicheaux and Ms. Bertrand can stay in their trailers. But Ms. Criswell, the FEMA administrator, said that wouldn’t be in their best interest.
“By having a set time frame, it gives people that focus,” Ms. Criswell said. “We want to help people get on their road to their permanent solution.”
Among those who have already moved out of their FEMA trailer is Ms. Swope.
A few months after her son died, FEMA told Ms. Swope to start paying almost $900 in rent or vacate the trailer. Her house wasn’t finished, but Ms. Swope’s monthly Social Security check was just $905, so she moved back into the house anyway.
“I mean, make up your mind,” Ms. Swope said. “Are you going to help us, or are you going to get all your trailers back?”