Flood recovery in a FEMA vacuum

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, January 8th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. It’s a new year. But last year’s problems linger for residents in a small Louisiana town whose homes flooded in July during Hurricane Barry. Disaster relief crews made quick work of gutting them. But some buildings remain in that condition.

REICHARD: That’s because repairing houses is the long slog of flood recovery. And those without the physical or financial means to do the work themselves rely on the government or the goodwill of others to help restore their homes. 

WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett visited a town where one retired couple is grateful for the assistance they’ve received.

NEWSCLIP: This morning Louisnana feeling the brunt of tropical Barry’s tropical storm and rain…

BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: The storm dumped more than 20 inches of rain on the rural Southwestern Louisiana town of 1,600 people.

Scores of waterways course through Allen Parrish where Oberlin is located. That’s ideal terrain for the rice and crawfish farmers. Those fields were already full of water when Barry came ashore. And city culverts, designed to divert run-off away from neighborhood streets, couldn’t redirect fast enough.

PASTOR CLIFF SPIKES: My name is Cliff Spikes. And I’m pastor of Oberlin Baptist Church in Oberlin Louisiana…The world is different than what is was before Hurricane Barry came through. We had about 200 homes that got damaged to some degree…

Cliff Spikes drives his work truck from the church to the flood zone less than a mile away. Waiting at a traffic light to cross the highway that bisects the town, he points to a barely perceptible rise in the curb-less two-lane road about 50 yards ahead.

SPIKES: So, as we go over the railroad track here, if you look you can see how there’s a little rise in the road there. Elevation. Just passed that is where the water covered. Both sides…

President Trump declared 25 Louisiana parishes—or counties—disaster areas, including Allen Parish. They qualify for public assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Those funds are off-setting costs by state and local entities for things like emergency work, debris removal, and infrastructure repair.

But the declaration does not qualify Louisiana homeowners for FEMA Individual Assistance. Those are the grants that usually help people repair their homes.

SPIKES: When you ride around our town, you know, you can tell it’s a very poor area. Mostly farmers of some sort. And as a result, they don’t have much. There’s no money. There’s no insurance. There’s no FEMA. There’s no help. So, these people are without…”

Volunteer disaster crews helped immediately after the storm. And Oberlin Baptist Church is committed to the long-haul recovery. But, Spikes admits the task is overwhelming.

SPIKES: And, it’s like, well, you know, we try to help each other the best we can, you know. But five times zero is still zero…

Oberlin residents are relying on their own limited financial resources, FEMA-approved Small Business Administration loans, and stipends from organizations like Catholic Charities and the Red Cross. Those funds help pay for costly supplies like flooring, insulation, and drywall. Spikes put out a nationwide plea for volunteer builders.

SPIKES: We’re working on two homes right now. This group is working on two homes…

During the last week in October, nine members of The Navajo Nation Christian Response Team answered that call. They’ve travelled 1,200 miles from a region more economically disadvantaged then Oberlin.

Jonathan Emerson is one of the Navajo volunteers. He says some of their fellow Navajo don’t understand the team’s motives. Why would they postpone work they are doing for the needy at home to help strangers, especially non-Native Americans, outside the reservation?

EMERSON: Many don’t understand that…For me, being a non-Christian, is you don’t care about anybody. You don’t care. You don’t love. There’s bitterness. Hatred…But when you become a Christian – when you’re getting to know God – you begin to see how people are in need. We don’t compare ourselves with other people. God looks at people all the same. There’s no higher. There’s no lower… 

The disaster relief team formed in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Pete Belone tells how a meeting between Navajo pastors and community leaders turned to disaster relief outside the reservation.

PETE BELON: There was a disaster that happened and that came into the conversation. And, then, what we said was, “When are we going to get involved? We had missionaries that come to our nation. When are we going to go back and help …”?

Within two months the nation sent its first crew to Port Arthur, Texas. 

Back in Oberlin, the Navajo crew has been helping with the ongoing restoration of two homes.

At Frank and Cindy Fontenots’ house they’ve replaced paneling and drywall and painted three rooms. On their own, the retired couple repaired as much as they were able.

It’s the second time for some of the work. Just over a year ago Frank and Cindy’s children commemorated their parent’s anniversary with new flooring. After Hurricane Barry, they had to pull it up.  

DANA THIBODEAUX: Happy 40th year anniversary to my parents because this is the date we completed it…

Their daughter Dana Thibodeaux reads the inscriptions originally penned on the concrete floor. Before putting in the second new floor, the family added another inscription. While most people will never know it’s there, the Fontenots do.

DANA TIBADEAUX: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. Isaiah 43:2. Remodel October 2019. Thank you, Navajo Brothers.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in Oberlin, Louisiana.

(Photo/Bonnie Pritchett) Pastor Cliff Spikes, left, and some of the members of the Navajo Nation Christian Response Team surround Cindy and Frank Fontenot, center, in their home.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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