BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Languishing in a tiny hotel room, their three young children buzzed around them on two beds pushed together. A pile of donated toys sat on the floor near a baby stroller that doubles as a cart to fetch groceries. Cockroaches lurked on the inside of an open cabinet near a mini refrigerator.
“We’re not complaining about it. It’s a place to live,” said Skyla M. Thomas, 20. “But at the same time, it’s disgusting.”
She and her partner, Quaylon Pitre, thought they had stability 125 miles away on the outskirts of Lake Charles, La., where Pitre worked as a casino security guard. Thomas cared full-time for their children, including an infant who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome. They rented a three-bedroom house with a yard. Family members were nearby.
That was before Hurricane Laura screamed across the Louisiana shoreline on Aug. 27 with sustained winds of more than 150 mph, devastating their home and thousands of others. They now are part of a diaspora of evacuees spread across hundreds of miles who have been without a permanent home for six weeks. Their numbers are expected to swell after Hurricane Delta rumbled ashore Oct. 9 night with Category 2 strength about 15 miles east of Laura’s landfall, raking many of the same areas with a second round of whipping winds and flooding.
It was yet another cruelty in an already challenging 2020, with dual hurricanes hitting southwestern Louisiana during a pandemic and an economic collapse. Thousands of displaced and distraught residents now face another indignity: They are waiting for help, sometimes in seedy hotels far from home, hoping that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will come to their rescue with temporary homes, funding, anything.
Thomas and Pitre are living in a two-level hotel with rooms that open to a parking lot strewn with trash and discarded furniture. A sex-toy shop is next door.
The couple is paying about $50 per night, relying in part on food stamps and meals delivered by a good Samaritan, Allen Keller, they said. Pitre is collecting unemployment for the moment and is eager to get back to work in Lake Charles, where hotels are mostly either too expensive for them or have been damaged or destroyed, he said. They left behind in Lake Charle a car that needed a new constant-velocity joint and wasn’t safe to drive long distances, they said.
“We’re not just used to walking. We were mobile,” Pitre said. “I’m not just the type to sit on my butt and collect money.”
Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter told The Washington Post that there were about 6,600 documented evacuees from Lake Charles outside the city after Laura. Overall, about 7,968 people who evacuated for Laura are occupying 3,457 hotel rooms in Louisiana and Texas, FEMA said in a statement in response to questions from The Washington Post. Some are from rural, coastal Cameron Parish, where homes were swept away in a cauldron of storm surge, howling winds and driving rain.
Hunter has pleaded with FEMA for a “rapid and robust housing plan,” he said, and has been told that within the next couple of weeks, the first temporary housing units - trailers, most likely - will arrive in Lake Charles and the surrounding area. Those with yards will be able to put their temporary housing there. Those in apartments probably will have to live on the outskirts of the city in trailers on recreational vehicle lots.
“It can’t happen a moment too soon,” Hunter said, noting that many of the evacuees have low or moderate incomes. “We need to get people out of shelters, out of hotel rooms and get them back home.”
FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor told the Weather Channel in an interview that the agency has had about 1,500 employees on the ground in southwestern Louisiana to respond to Laura and that they are working on damage caused by both storms.
“I think you’ll see a head start, and hopefully you’ll see progress pretty quickly,” he said.
Though the agency keeps a stock of housing units on standby, officials are working to purchase additional units and have others built to meet demand, FEMA told The Post. It also temporarily put on hold work on housing for Laura evacuees when it became clear that Delta’s arrival was imminent.
“Units are currently being identified and moved to Louisiana from FEMA’s existing inventory,” the agency said. “Additional units are being purchased off the lot from local dealers, and FEMA continues to receive units manufactured under existing FEMA contracts at its Louisiana staging area.”
Each evacuee’s story is different, but all involve a struggle of some kind.
In Grand Chenier, a small coastal community nearly wiped out by Hurricane Laura, Lori and Vince Theriot evacuated before the storm, renting hotel rooms in Baton Rouge and thinking they would be back home in a few days.
But their house, built in 1984 more than 13 feet above the ground, was swamped with about three feet of water after Laura hit, Lori Theriot said. The home appears to have mostly survived the wind, she said, but repairing it will take months. Electricity is not expected in their neighborhood until December at the earliest.
Since leaving Grand Chenier, the Theriot family shuttled for a time between several hotels, unable to remain where they were because they did not extend their stay long enough; their lodging already had been promised to someone else.
Lori Theriot found space in a friend’s Lake Charles apartment that survived both storms intact, she said. Her husband, who works on an offshore oil platform, has returned to sea. He hopes to retire next year, and they are planning to build a home about 30 miles inland near Sweet Lake, La. They want to turn the house in Grand Chenier into a camp.
“You hate to build and put a lot of money into something,” Theriot said. “But where do you go? What’s far enough?”
A few miles away, Cindy and Eugene Jones evacuated their home in the town of Creole, a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, about two days ahead of Laura’s landfall to a hotel 40 miles inland. When they saw that the storm had intensified to a Category 4 monster, they scrambled back, gathered keepsakes and evacuated farther to Baton Rouge.
Aside from a crumpled roof left behind, the entire home, built 12 feet above the ground, is gone. The family has relocated again to a temporary home in Nederland, Tex., something for which they express gratitude.
But the Jones family is still fighting to get insurance money, Cindy Jones said. A FEMA representative told them they cannot seek any additional compensation until that is handled, including help paying for the hotel rooms they used, she said. They, too, are planning to move farther inland.
“We were much luckier than a lot of folks,” she said. “But we haven’t received a cent from anyone as of today.”
In Lafayette, 75 miles east of Lake Charles, hotels swelled with evacuees after Hurricane Delta. Some had been without homes since the first storm.
Martha Smith has cared for her mother and aunt, both 91, after Laura left both of their homes uninhabitable, Smith said.
Her aunt Dolores has dementia, and when she wakes up in a hotel confused about her surroundings, Smith reminds her of what has happened.
At the same time Smith is negotiating moving the family between hotel rooms, she has organized recovery of their homes while remote. With the sixth anniversary of her husband’s death approaching, the burden gnaws at her.
“It’s overwhelming because life keeps going on,” Smith said.
Back in Baton Rouge, Thomas and members of her extended family are trying figure out what comes next. Her sister and her sister’s children and partner joined them in Baton Rouge at the same hotel after seeking refuge in Texas. They had little more than the clothes they were wearing when they left the hurricane zone.
Skyla Thomas said FEMA approved an initial $1,000 payment to help them cover the hotel rooms. But the family was denied when they applied for more housing money, even though she had all of her hotel receipts, she said.
Upstairs, her sister, Alyissa Thomas, 19, and Alyissa’s partner, Xavier P. Buckner, 27, were in similar straits. The lease to Alyissa Thomas’s apartment in Lake Charles was terminated after a tree landed on the building and part of the roof was ripped off by Laura’s wind, she said. She graduated from high school this year and was hoping to go to college or veterinary school.
Instead, she is hoping to get a FEMA trailer so she can start over and provide her two children some stability.
“It hurts so much because I worked so hard to get where I was with me and my kids,” she said, her voice cracking.
Downstairs, Skyla Thomas’s voice caught as she described her children’s baby books and other keepsakes being devoured in the hurricane.
She said she called FEMA recently about getting a trailer and was told they were under inspection. No additional information was available.
“It’s a standstill,” she said. “You’re stuck. We’re waiting for FEMA.”
Meryl Kornfield in Lafayette, La., contributed to this report.
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