BATON ROUGE, La. — With tens of thousands of Louisiana homes damaged by floodwaters last year, you might expect a mad dash from homeowners scrambling to seek the $1.3 billion in federal recovery aid available for repairs and rebuilding.
Instead, state officials still are trying to persuade people to sign up across the 51 parishes damaged by the March and August 2016 floods now that Congress has provided the cash, and that’s going to make it harder to pressure Washington for another round of recovery dollars.
Louisiana’s flood rebuilding program is emailing, sending text messages, running ads, hosting outreach events and even going door-to-door to try to track down homeowners who might be eligible for aid, along with locating those who could stand to receive assistance if the state gets more federal money.
“We still have thousands of homeowners out there who we know are eligible for assistance and the funds are now available, but we do need them to sign up,” Edwards said, standing outside a home repaired through the state’s Restore Louisiana program.
Asked about the difficulty getting flood victims’ attention, the Democratic governor said: “Certainly it’s been a little harder than I wanted it to be.”
Pat Forbes, Edwards’ disaster recovery chief, said the $1.3 billion earmarked for homeowners will provide rebuilding aid to an estimated 37,000 people, those who had major or severe flood damage and mainly those who didn’t have flood insurance coverage. Homeowners who meet the criteria can get partial reimbursement for repair and rebuilding work they’ve already completed, and some lower-income, elderly homeowners could get full reimbursement.
Restore Louisiana is using the survey responses to help determine if people are eligible for existing aid — and also to tally what unmet needs still exist for homeowners as Louisiana continues to lobby Washington for more help.
More than 36,000 people have filled out the survey since it went online in April. About 21,000 are expected to be eligible for the available aid, short of the people expected to qualify and only a fraction of the 112,000 homes estimated to have been damaged by the floods.
Forbes listed an array of roadblocks in getting people to take the survey.
Some homeowners assume Louisiana will run out of money before getting to them. Some incorrectly think only low-income homeowners are eligible. Others believe they can’t get a dime because they finished rebuilding. People don’t trust government programs. Some see an advertisement and think it’s a scam. And some simply haven’t heard about the aid.
“I continue to be surprised that there are people who say they didn’t know the program existed. It’s hard for me to imagine that scenario, but it’s out there,” Forbes said.
Response levels are far lower in north Louisiana and Acadiana than in the Baton Rouge region. Forbes expects interest in the survey to build as more people get assistance — and their neighbors hear about it.
Fewer than three dozen grants have been awarded so far through Restore Louisiana, representing less than $1 million in homeowner aid. The Edwards administration expects the pace to pick up in the coming weeks.
Hoping to draw attention to available assistance, Edwards toured one of the first homes repaired through the program with 63-year-old homeowner Lillie Gumm.
Gumm wiped away tears as she showed Edwards and his wife Donna the rebuilt kitchen, where workers still were installing light switch covers. After staying with friends and now living in a FEMA trailer, Gumm was days away from moving back into her home, which was ravaged by nearly 3 feet of floodwater.
She anticipates being home by next weekend’s anniversary of the flooding.
“It has been a very depressing, frustrating ordeal that we all have gone through. And I really do appreciate this program. It’s a lot better than what I expected,” Gumm said.
But others in her Park Forest neighborhood still are working to rebuild. Front lawns are dotted with FEMA trailers, and some homes still had the distinctive piles of debris indicating flood repairs.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte
An AP News Analysis