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The Waters Have Receded From Baton Rouge. Now Comes The Hard Part.

Baton Rouge resident Raymond Lieteau takes photos of his flood-damaged home. CREDIT: AP Photo/Max Becherer
Baton Rouge resident Raymond Lieteau takes photos of his flood-damaged home. CREDIT: AP Photo/Max Becherer

Talya Bergeron was shocked when water began rushing into her house.

Bergeron had lived in Louisiana through both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav — she was at her sister’s house for the latter disaster when it flooded out. But she never thought it would happen to her home in East Baton Rouge Parish. Neighbors told her the area hadn’t flooded in 30 years. And this time, there was no hurricane declaration or even a warning of a major storm.

“I lived through Katrina, but we didn’t have any damage, we didn’t have any damage from Gustav,” she said. “It’s just amazing to see this happen to me. I just never thought this would happen.”

But on Friday, August 12, there was so much water in her house that she described leaving big wet footprints when she stepped on her carpet because it was so soaked through.

“The water just kept coming and coming,” she said. “It was kind of rapid.”

“The water just kept coming and coming.”

When there was water covering the floor of every room, her husband decided they had to leave. They packed what they could and waded out into the street, walking through water that came up to their thighs. They got to a fire station, where they were able to call someone to come get them and bring them to a relative’s house.

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Bergeron, her husband, and her three children are still staying with her sister-in-law, and she’s dying to get back into her house. But even though the water receded only a few days after the storm hit, some of the biggest problems for the area are only just beginning. And she’s seeing them first-hand not just in her own recovery process, but in her job with the civil legal aid group Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS).

Now comes the difficult task of rebuilding and trying to get the tens of thousands of people displaced from their homes back into their communities — hopefully avoiding what happened in New Orleans, where people are still trying to go home more than a decade after Hurricane Katrina.

SLLS is bracing for the same problem it faced in the wake of other major storms: Many families in Louisiana pass houses down between members informally, without making sure the proper paperwork is done to transfer the title. A number of important institutions — the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), government recovery agencies, even banks — require proof of ownership before they’ll dispense any help.

This problem is cropping up even sooner this time thanks to a new kind of government response: the “Shelter at Home” program recently rolled out by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D). It’s meant to get people into their homes if they are at all habitable even while repairs are done, rather than have them wait it out in shelters or FEMA trailers.

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“This is something we’ve never seen deployed in a disaster,” said Laura Tuggle, executive director of SLLS. She’s optimistic it could lead to a faster recovery. Still, it comes with complications. “One of the first questions on the application is something like, ‘Are you the owner of the house?’” she noted. What seems like a simple question can be quite complex for many families in Louisiana.

“In prior disasters, that issue has come along a little later,” she added. “But with this one it looks like it’s going to come up very early on.”

Bergeron is already entangled in it herself. She and her husband have a clear title for their house — but it got wet in the flooding. So she has to wait for the papers to dry out before she can get enrolled in Shelter at Home. She may be luckier than others, however, whose documents could have been totally destroyed.

“Anytime you have a disaster like this, housing is at a premium.”

On the tail of any title problems will come another housing issue: disputes between landlords and rental tenants.

“Anytime you have a disaster like this, housing is at a premium,” Tuggle said, because there are fewer livable houses and an increased demand with the influx of workers coming to rebuild the region.

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Many Louisiana residents don’t have formal leases or have let them lapse to month-to-month agreements, and in those cases the state has no law protecting tenants from evictions or the failure to renew leases — the only real requirement is giving a tenant a bit of notice before they can be kicked out.

“We’re already seeing this,” Tuggle said. “You’re going to potentially see rents rise, or people being evicted from homes, because housing’s at a premium and the landlord can get more money.”

Later on will come the wave of foreclosures from homeowners who will fall behind on payments as they try to rebuild their lives. The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently announced that it’s giving anyone in the area with a Federal Housing Administration-backed mortgage a 90-day moratorium on foreclosure, but that might not be enough to get people through the worst of it — and they’ll still owe money once the moratorium ends.

“Closer to four to six months down the road, we unfortunately might see some instances of foreclosure where folks have just not ben able to get things together,” Tuggle said.

Even smaller problems can loom large. Bergeron and her husband left behind three cars, two SUVs and a sedan, when they fled their flooding house because the water was too high to drive them out. The SUVs survived, but the car was swamped and is now wet and moldy.

She’s waiting for the insurance company to come pick it up. But many people may not know what they’re supposed to do with a flooded car. They may stop making payments even though they still have to stay current while they wait for any insurance payouts. The payouts often don’t cover the entire amount people owe on their cars, leaving them underwater both literally and figuratively. And while FEMA will sometimes help with money for destroyed cars, it often requires proof from a mechanic first that it isn’t drivable — yet many people will immediately throw anything that’s damaged out right away.

Being without a car in this area is no small problem, either. “In a lot of these parishes, there’s not really any public transportation, much less reliable transportation,” Tuggle pointed out. “So when you lose your car, you have really just lost your lifeline to medical care, doctors, your work.”

The good news, if there is any, is that the water didn’t stay as long this time as it has in other major storms, receding in about three or four days. Tuggle is also heartened by the rapid government response and conversations her organization has already been brought into about how to tackle things like title issues. “Title clearing is critically needed to help communities recover from this disaster, and they’ve already gotten the message,” she said. “That kind of conversation was not happening 10 years ago.”

“We are preparing for a long marathon.”

But there’s a lot of work ahead — for residents, for the government, and for legal aid groups like SLLS. “We are preparing for a long marathon,” Tuggle said.

Bergeron and her husband were able to get back to see their house a few days after the storm and are already ripping out carpeting and wood flooring in most of the rooms. She also had to take out vanities in the bathrooms and will need to redo the walls and likely the kitchen cabinets. “I don’t want to move back into a house with mold,” she said. “I learned that from Katrina — we had to do whatever we could to prevent mold from going in the house.”

She’s also dealing with more immediate problems. Her kids go back to school on Tuesday, but she’s living about a 45-minute drive from her old home.

It’s been a lot for them, especially her eldest, who is 15. “He’s quiet, and he’s become more quiet than usual,” she said.

“It’s kind of hard on my kids right now,” she added.