After Hurricane Katrina dropped her rains on us in 2005, it was the elderly man sitting near the Algiers ferry landing without shoes, having been forced out of his home by rising waters before anything could be packed or salvaged. There was also the St. Bernard Parish fireman, fatigued from days of search and rescue operations, who shaved different parts of his head at night to help forget the day’s events. Following Gustav’s landfall earlier this month, it was the young mother from Terrebonne Parish who was bused to a poorly-supplied Red Cross shelter in Port Allen. Her only daughter — just 18-months-old, like my own — had to endure two days without fresh diapers.
When your job involves writing about the devastation wrought by Mother Nature, particularly the kind that emerges from the Gulf of Mexico, it’s difficult to forget the people you come across. Three years ago, when Hurricane Rita shredded Louisiana’s western coastline, I met Al Trautman in Lydia, a small community just south of New Iberia. His story isn’t uncommon. Three feet of water tore through his house, creating a panoramic view of his backyard from his bedroom. It took four months for an insurance adjuster to even show up at Trautman’s home — not that it helped any. Like others in the region, he felt bamboozled by the insurance industry and the federal government, neither of which could offer assistance. So he rebuilt on his own.
Last week, I received an e-mail from Trautman with a single word in the subject line: IKE. Before I even opened the e-mail, I already knew the news wouldn’t be good. Hurricane Ike had taken a westward approach toward Texas just days after Gustav, passing Louisiana’s coastal communities along the way and pushing its waters behind Gustav’s lingering waters. “We got one foot of water in our house,” Trautman writes. “Sally and I are tearing out the floors and walls. I never thought that we’d see two hurricanes in a week… Al.”
Now Trautman, along with hundreds of other folks from down the bayou and up the street, is starting over. And as expected, among the toughest issues to tackle first is insurance. While the wind versus rising water debate was all the rage three years ago (meaning which caused the damage), the biggest shocker this time around has been the special hurricane deductibles attached to some policies that is actually a percentage of the home’s insured value, rather than the traditional deductible of $500 or $1,000.
For Steven Evans of Houma, that special deductible on his Allstate policy is $18,000. He has an unused home equity loan to put toward the massive sum but will need to consider another means to make up the difference. Evans says his child’s college fund and his retirement are likely to be pilfered, but he’s “lucky” — lucky to be living in a camper next to his home and lucky that the damage from Gustav won’t drain him completely dry. Still, some assistance would be nice.
That’s why Evans did the most logical thing: he turned to FEMA. However, FEMA told him that his home was “livable” and therefore he was not eligible for any type of assistance. “The ceiling fell in our dining room and in my daughter’s room,” Evans says. “They say that is livable. My main question is what is the government going to do to help people like me, that aren’t eligible for most if not all of the assistance? I am only asking this because I need help financially to get past this, and I feel that we — the middle class — have the burden of supporting all of these programs but we are turned down when we need to use them.”
Trautman understands what Evans is going through. He had to become self-reliant in the aftermath of Rita, which is why he didn’t bother getting any kind of hurricane insurance on his home after the first rebuilding. Trautman, who recently turned 66, calls the decision an “error” now and, since Ike made landfall, he has attempted to secure FEMA assistance for the temporary apartment he is renting with his wife. In short, it was a rerun of 2005. “FEMA told us that they won’t be able to help us out with that,” Trautman says.
U.S. Rep. Don Cazayoux, a Democrat from New Roads, has asked FEMA — and the agency is considering the request — to allow all residents to be reimbursed for generators if they have incurred a loss of electrical power for more than seven days. He rightly argues that a lack of electricity leaves “many of our most vulnerable citizens at risk.” Lawmakers are also asking the feds to improve and expand the Disaster Food Stamp Program, since so many residents have lost the contents of their freezers and refrigerators.
Any relief is welcomed, Trautman says. For instance, after long days of gutting his house, Trautman likes to enjoy a scoop or two of ice cream with his wife. It’s a taste of normality, if nothing else, and helps to bring life back into perspective. A little bit of assistance from the federal government could do the same thing, Trautman says, although he frames it as only a Cajun could, in a language FEMA definitely wouldn’t understand.
“It would really help us get rid of that couillion,” Trautman says laughing. "That’s all."