DENHAM SPRINGS, La. (AP) — Keisha Taylor, a 37-year-old mother of four, has spent three nights in two different shelters since her family fled the flooding at their Baton Rouge apartment complex. She doesn’t know how much longer they will be sleeping on cots inside the downtown arena where hundreds sought shelter.
Taylor probably could stay with relatives in White Castle, a town about 30 miles west of Louisiana’s capital city, but three of her kids are enrolled in Baton Rouge schools that could reopen next week.
“This is where I live. I need to be home,” she said.
Taylor is among thousands of people across southern Louisiana displaced by catastrophic flooding and now struggling with where to live.
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With an estimated 40,000 homes damaged by deadly flooding, Louisiana could be looking at its biggest housing crunch since the miserable, bumbling aftermath of Hurricane Katrina a decade ago.
For the Baton Rouge area, the blow added to what has already been a tough summer starting with the shooting death of 37-year-old Alton Sterling on July 5. The death of Sterling, a black man, at the hands of two white police officers incited widespread protests in which nearly 200 people were arrested.
Then on July 17, a lone gunman killed three law enforcement officers and wounded three others outside a Baton Rouge convenience store. The suspect, Gavin Long, an Army veteran from Kansas City, Missouri, was killed by police. The dead officers all had lived in the area of Denham Springs, a quiet bedroom community near Baton Rouge.
Then the rains hit.
People now are staying in shelters, bunking with friends or relatives or sleeping in trailers on their front lawns. Others unable or unwilling to leave their homes are living amid mud and the ever-present risk of mold in the steamy August heat.
Many victims will need an extended place to stay while they rebuild. Countless others had no flood insurance and may lack the means to repair their homes.
“I got nowhere else to go,” said Thomas Lee, 56, who ekes out a living as a drywall hanger — a skill that will come in handy. His sodden furniture is piled curbside and the drywall in his rented house is puckering, but Thomas still plans to stay there, sleeping on an air mattress.
State officials are urging landlords to allow short-term leases and encouraging people to rent out any empty space available.
Terri Ricks, deputy secretary for the Department of Children and Family Services, which helps organize local sheltering efforts, said the state is talking with parishes about possibly running a long-term shelter to give people a place to stay while they repair and rebuild.
“Nobody wants to do a long-term shelter,” she said. “We want to get people in a more permanent situation.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose very name became a punchline during Katrina, said it will look into lining up rental properties for those left homeless and will consider using temporary housing units.
But FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate gave assurances that the temporary units won’t be the old FEMA travel trailers — a reference to the ones brought in after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that were found to have toxic levels of formaldehyde.
FEMA aid has started flowing to people with damage, according to the governor’s office, which said nearly 1,400 houses have been inspected by the federal agency. About $900,000 has been paid to homeowners in FEMA individual assistance so far, of $7.6 million that has been approved for disbursement.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson visited Louisiana on Thursday to review the federal government’s response to the flooding. But the White House says President Barack Obama is unlikely to break from a New England vacation to survey Louisiana flood damage, despite calls for him to visit.
While some have criticized Obama’s decision, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday he is “not complaining in any way about our federal partnership.”
He added that while the President can visit whenever he’d like, he’d prefer him to wait “a week or two” because such visits require local police and first responders to help block roads and provide security.
Obama has not commented on the flooding. The White House says he’s being updated regularly and has approved a federal disaster declaration for the affected areas.
The flooding that struck the Baton Rouge and Lafayette areas left at least 13 people dead. More than 30,000 have been rescued, and at least 70,000 have registered for federal disaster assistance. At the height, 11,000 people were in shelters, though that figured dropped to 4,000 by Thursday.
The few with flood insurance will be in a much better place to begin rebuilding.
Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon said it was shocking that only 12 percent of the homes in hard-hit Baton Rouge were covered by flood insurance, and only 14 percent in Lafayette. Donelon, however, said he understands why the state’s “large population of working poor folks” wouldn’t pay for flood coverage when lenders tell them it’s not a requirement.
David Ellis is among the homeowners with flood damage but no flood insurance.
He and his wife closed on their new house in a Livingston Parish subdivision last Thursday afternoon. It started flooding the very next day, water ultimately rising above 3 feet inside his home. Like many of his neighbors, Ellis had no flood insurance. He said he was told he didn’t need it.
Friends have launched an online fundraising campaign to help repair the new home.
“I hate asking for help, but having somebody do that for us is awesome,” he said.
Kunzelman and Deslatte reported from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.