Report from Louisiana: Politicians Fiddle with Federal Money While Flood Victims Struggle

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – It’s been about seven months since the devastating floods in south Louisiana caused damage to over 60,000 homes and caused billions of dollars in damage. The recovery is ongoing and fraught with frustration. Not one dime of federal money has been allocated to Louisiana flood victims.

Many residents have been living in campers on their own property next to ruined homes while awaiting FEMA dollars to help rebuild. Some are living in shelters. Some live in their garage. Some move around between friends and family. Some are even living in tents on their own property, unable to move back into their homes which are covered in black mold and unable to do repairs until the money starts to flow.

In September, the federal government allocated $1.6 billion in federal aid for Louisiana but not one dime has been released to those in need.

Congressman Garret Graves represents much of the flooded area and he wanted the federal money sent directly to the local level where it could be put in the hands of those who need it most but the state refused, opting instead to hire a contractor to manage the flood recovery program; that bidding process is a mess. Graves released this statement last week when the contract worth $250 million fell through:

Tent living post flood.

This is very disappointing news. This will further delay the allocation of badly-needed flood relief funds that we appropriated in September. It is impossible to explain to flood victims why $1.6 billion in recovery dollars are stuck in the bureaucracy while homes remain gutted, moldy and un-insulated.

This also further challenges our efforts in Congress to provide additional flood relief dollars when not a penny of September funding has been allocated to flood victims. On August 19th, I urged that a contractor be hired to administer this program.

Taking away $250 million or more from flood victims and giving it contractors to administer this program and to take seven months or more to get the money out the door further victimizes our flood survivors.

This has nothing to do with politics; it is just frustrating and sloppy.  Finally, anyone that attempts to blame these delays on the federal systems lacks a fundamental understanding of the process and opportunities to expedite flood relief.

As it is right now, nobody is in charge of flood relief in Louisiana. 

It appears that the politicians are afraid to touch the issue and with the exception of Congressman Graves, you’d be hard pressed to find one politician who has been through those flood ravaged neighborhoods or met with those desperate people since August 2016.

Entire neighborhoods remain empty in Baton Rouge.

Immediately after the flooding, and in fact while the flooding was still ongoing, a group of citizen soldiers, later dubbed the Cajun Navy and which I wrote about here, jumped into action.  These people were citizens with boats and/or a willingness to help. They worked alongside the authorities and saved countless lives and have continued to provide aid and resources to those still frustrated by government red tape and bureaucracy.

And now, a 501c3 non-profit, Cajun Relief Foundation, is partnering with a few local organizations to get help to the citizens that most need it. They are working non-stop to help people get household items that they need like beds, tables, appliances, silverware. Many of these victims were folks that were already “at risk,” and had health issues, transportation issues, employment issues, etc.

Most of these victims are self-reliant people who don’t want to ask for help even though they badly need it.

Imagine navigating the task of demolition, clean-up, rebuilding, negotiating with insurance agencies, mortgage companies, FEMA, the federal government, the state, and crooked opportunists who only want to rip you off when sometimes the best you can do is comfort your children when it starts to rain and they are terrified.

One of those citizen soldiers is Shannon Easley who oversees a distribution center of materials and supplies in her church. Shannon goes out into the communities and talks to the people; she makes live Facebook videos of their plight to bring awareness of the need. Last week she talked to a man who is blind in one eye and on dialysis three times a week; Shannon kept asking him what he needed but he just kept telling her how much he had already done. He was so proud of his work! But, it’s clear there are needs there.

Cajun Relief Foundation posted this on their Facebook page last week and this post speaks to this issue much better than I can:

Everyone expected massive needs after the flood, everyone knew it would be hard, everyone assumes there’s someone there to help. But, what if there’s not, think about it. All it takes is one person who can’t figure out what to do next, who to call, where to go, who to turn to. And they are out there, the floods forgotten.

The needs, you know they’re real. And not because of the size of the flood because that was months ago. You know it’s real because you hear about it from passers by, you see in online articles, you glance at it on the local news, you see it on the cover of the local newspapers, you pass something out of place on the street and frankly if you’re really in tune with your fellow human beings and the universe, you just frankly just sense it in the air. Let me ask you, do you walk past it, do you close your wallet? What are you doing right now to help?

I promise you when you get in your car, drive to a barren house with the elderly resident whose beloved veteran husband was all they had in world, except for their home and memories and who has no one helping her and you see it and smell it and you roll your sleeves up, get down into the nitty-gritty and actually really SEE it for yourself, a feeling of helplessness that is hard to describe will take over… you try and hide it because of the people you’re there to be strong for… but when this plays out over and over and over and over… again.. it’s hard.

Then you step out on her grimy front porch and notice an elderly neighbor standing in their door peering over and watching you and you wonder, are they being helped? You walk over and talk to them… find they are yet another lost soul, no one helping and you smell the mold coming from inside of their home.. and their living conditions have them hopeless… and you feel hopeless because you’ve tapped out your own savings… and you wonder…. how many more little houses with perfect picket fences that line the street… have studs for walls and have completely broken, forgotten flood victims living in them?

The team of people that I’m honored to see working every day on behalf of flood victims see it, hear it and patiently go about fixing it every single day. One person, one family, one pet, one home, one meal, one set of clothes, one puzzle, one toy, one smile… at a time. Yet, still we know this is simply BIGGER than anyone can wrap their head around. You alone cannot save the world, but, you that doesn’t mean you don’t still carry the weight of it. Because you are human and you try and be tune and connect with your fellow beings… and God.

You would assume that the churches in the area would help, and some are, but so many are only helping those in their congregation. What do you do if you aren’t in the congregation?

The need is great.

And none of the politicians see it first-hand. Worse, in many ways the politicians are standing in the way.

While the government fiddles, Cajun Relief is doing what needs to be done. My question is why do we need to pay $250 million to a firm to manage flood recovery when the non-profits are already doing it? The politicians need to see what the non-profits are doing and go from there. The winning bidder is going to have to come in and learn what is already being done. It doesn’t make sense.

Cajun Relief is not in Baton Rouge because they want publicity or recognition: they are in it purely to help the people. They meet the people, talk to them, assess their needs, assign case workers to help follow up, and organize crowd funding to buy the essentials for these people. These flood victims have spend their life savings (if they had any) doing repairs on their own. They don’t have money left over for a new stove.

If you want to help, go to The Cajun Relief Foundation and donate. You can be sure that your donation will get help to those flood victims who are still waiting for the politicians to figure out who gets what size slice of the federal government pie; Cajun Relief doesn’t want any of that pie. They just want to help their neighbors.