Riverside Estates residents express frustrations at public meeting

Halen Doughty
FEMA trailers in front of beautiful homes and for sale signs characterize much of Buxton Road in St. Amant, where one resident interviewed said he had 48 inches of water in his home.

Residents of the Riverside Estates subdivision in St. Amant expressed their frustrations about the struggles of getting back into their homes following last August’s devastating flood. Parish Councilman Randy Clouatre called the public meeting to offer a forum for residents to discuss their options on the federal response and to look at their options going forward. Representatives from FEMA, the Parish, the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP), Restore Louisiana, and other rebuilding agencies fielded questions from citizens.

The topic of discussion at the meeting was a proposed buy out of the neighborhood as officials say it’s a similar process to FEMA purchasing an individual home or an entire neighborhood. Elevating the houses was another option though only a few people present at the meeting expressed interest in raising their homes.

Another issue is home elevation, as some homeowners are unable to get flood insurance after the flood elevation was raised following last year's downpour. For homeowners with repetitive losses, or more than one flood claim, FEMA offers assistance to raise the home at around an 80-20 match. That leaves homeowners to foot tens of thousands of dollars towards the elevation, and many say they don't have that kind of money after tapping into savings, retirement, and loans to rebuild their homes.

Some present at the meeting were frustrated the same assistance is not available for first-time flood victims. Officials attempted to explain the "different pots of money" the feds offer for disaster-impacted residents. But those discussions did little to console those at the meeting.

Restore Louisiana offers three options for first-time flood victims looking to rebuild. The first is to use a contractor through the rebuilding program, who will rebuild the home at no cost to the homeowners. Another option is for flood victims to find their own contractor and have the state cover the cost of rebuilding. For those who have already rebuilt through savings and retirement money, the state also offers a reimbursement option. For more information on these programs and how to apply, visit restore.la.gov.

But not everyone liked the idea of putting up with more federal bureaucracy. Riverside resident Susan Tullier said dealing with FEMA has been "a disaster within a disaster." She was not pleased at the prospect of dealing with the federal agency again after all the red tape flood victims had to navigate following the flood.

The Modular Housing Units, or FEMA trailers, were a hot topic. Assistant Deputy Secretary of Hazard Mitigation with GOHSEP, Casey Tingle, explained to those in attendance that the program is set to end in mid-February. That means flood victims still living in FEMA trailers will have to vacate them soon, unless Louisiana's congressional delegation can convince the feds to extend the deadline. Congressman Garret Graves' Chief of Staff Paul Sawyer said he's optimistic they will be successful, as FEMA had agreed to extend deadlines for other recovery programs like hotel housing and shelters.

Tingle said as the program is set today, the MHU program will end in February. Once it ends, residents who do not move out of the trailers will be charged a monthly $550 penalty on top of rent at market value. Sawyer said they have requested that FEMA waive both the penalty and the rent for an additional 90 days, but it remains to be seen if federal officials approve the request.

Other options for those in FEMA trailers include purchasing the unit, but that didn't seem an appealing option to residents at the meeting. Tingle said if someone does buy the trailer they are living in, they will be charged market value for the unit, which can range between $20,000 and $30,000. The units are also sold as is where it is, meaning FEMA will not move the trailer to another location. That means residents would have to get permits to keep the modular homes on their lots, which could pose a problem in the subdivision. Several people at the meeting indicated they are still living in the trailers set up in their yards more than one year after the flood waters receded.

Officials say they are working on flood mitigation plans in an attempt to prevent such disasters in the future. But many were skeptical and raised concerns about the lack of maintenance on drainage systems already in place. The discussion became heated as residents detailed their frustrations with drainage in the area, as many feel that contributed to their homes repeatedly taking on water. One man was outraged about retention ponds that have been dug, saying they have been filled with fish rather than pumping the water out so more can come in during heavy rains.

Another resident raised concerns about development in the area, saying new construction leaves nowhere for the water to go and forces the flood into the neighborhood. Meeting speakers noted there are currently very little restrictions on what people can do with their property, meaning they have the freedom to build up and push water into the surrounding homes. Over the next few months, they say they'll take a closer look at implementing such limitations.

More than a year after flood waters rose across south Louisiana, it's clear many still have a long way to go.

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