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Analysis: Louisiana still waiting for aid a year after Laura

August 29, 2021 GMT

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Hurricane Laura wrecked southwest Louisiana a year ago, leaving marks of devastation that remain evident today in blue-tarped roofs, damaged homes and boarded-up businesses that still dot the region. For the people who live there, the suffering seems even worse because they feel forgotten.

Officials say recovery has been made more difficult by the absence of relief aid from Washington.

Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter sounds as though he’s moved from frustration to disbelief as his city still waits for disaster block grant assistance from the White House and Congress even as Laura’s anniversary passed. At an event Thursday with the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Hunter called the absence of the recovery money “glaring, unacceptable, embarrassing.”

Laura, which officials called the most powerful storm to impact Louisiana since 1856, struck the southwestern parishes on Aug. 27, 2020, as a fierce Category 4 storm. Less than two months later, Hurricane Delta swept into the same area as a Category 2. Historic flooding followed in May.

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More than 175,000 insurance claims were filed for Laura, and the storm was estimated to cause $10 billion in insured losses, according to Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon.

The region has received hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster aid from FEMA to help people with short-term needs and to help replace damaged government buildings. But dollars for long-term housing for low- to moderate-income households and other recovery needs that Congress traditionally sends states after disasters haven’t arrived.

“It’s just very, very difficult here, and the country just seems to have forgotten and walked away,” said Denise Durel, president and CEO of the United Way of Southwest Louisiana.

Shortly after President Joe Biden took office in January, Gov. John Bel Edwards sent a disaster request similar to the one he sent then-President Donald Trump in November.

Louisiana’s Democratic governor asked for $3 billion to help the state with its recovery from Laura, Delta and other storms that struck in 2020. Edwards requested dollars that can be spent to help rebuild people’s homes, create affordable rental housing, modernize infrastructure and harden against future storm threats.

Congressional approval is needed if the state is to receive the money, but a White House request can help speed that along.

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Both presidents traveled to Lake Charles and discussed hurricane recovery. But Louisiana is still waiting. Thousands of people remain displaced, including 2,400 living in temporary trailers set up by FEMA.

Durel describes adults who’ve returned to stay with parents, people sleeping on couches in friends’ houses and others temporarily living hours away from home because they don’t have the money for repairs, they’ve received too little from insurance claims or their landlords haven’t restored their rental housing.

“Some of our buildings haven’t even been touched,” said Durel, who considers herself lucky because she’s able to live in her hurricane-damaged townhome while completing repairs covered by insurance.

To illustrate the need, community leaders pointed out that by July’s end in Lake Charles fewer than 13% of residential buildings had pulled permits to begin reconstruction or rehabilitation and 60% of public housing was still offline.

“I ask the American public as much as you can: Remember, please remember what has happened here in Lake Charles — and perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t happened here in Lake Charles,” Hunter said in a recent Facebook post.

Lake Charles’ Republican mayor said disaster recovery block grant aid was allocated by Congress 10 days after Hurricane Katrina, 34 days after Hurricane Andrew and 98 days after Superstorm Sandy.

Southwest Louisiana has felt forgotten before.

After Hurricane Rita left a wide path of destruction across the region in September 2005, residents complained their losses and devastation were overshadowed by the suffering wrought on New Orleans by Katrina a month earlier. People in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes referred to “Rita amnesia,” but they still received relief aid because that request was bundled with the disaster money Louisiana received for Katrina.

Members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation say they are pushing for Laura assistance.

Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy said he’s expecting disaster recovery block grant aid for Louisiana to be part of congressional budget legislation that should pass in September or October. Edwards said he’s received similar assurances from White House officials and congressional leaders.

“Until it happens, we’re not going to stop working it,” Cassidy said.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.