Desperate Louisiana bayou residents lined up from morning until night earlier this week, trying to file complicated FEMA documents by the agency’s March 1 deadline for Hurricane Ida recovery aid.

Rosina Philippe, a tribal elder with Atakapa-Ishak/Chawasha tribe, barely slept all week, as she and a group of housing advocates set up folding tables in communities during the day. After they returned home, they worked round-the-clock to assemble and upload dozens of appeals by the Wednesday midnight deadline. 

Then, on Thursday, Philippe got word that FEMA had issued a 90-day extension for the Individual Household. She and her team erupted into cheers and applause, in rooms piled with paperwork.

Wednesday officially marked 18 months since Hurricane Ida tore into Montegut, Chauvin, Pointe-aux-chenes, Dulac and other small villages along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. But it’s still common to see spans of blue tarps covering damaged sections of roofs and walls. Inside water-damaged homes, walls had been gutted down to the studs but awaited FEMA help for further repairs. 

A FEMA press release noted that as of Wednesday, FEMA had approved more than $1.2 billion for individuals and households impacted by Hurricane Ida. 

“There has been progress. But the people who are left waiting are so weary. All they want is to get back to a semblance of normalcy in their lives. But for many, that hasn’t happened yet,” Philippe said. “So we’re so grateful for everyone who had a hand in making this extension possible, from FEMA to the state, on down.”

Despite the slow pace of recovery along the Gulf Coast, an extension had seemed like a long shot. Though Gov. John Bel Edwards had formally requested an extension from FEMA on Feb. 24, he had made a similar — but unsuccessful – request after Hurricane Laura.

Advocates had argued that FEMA’s own policies were consistent with an extension for this storm. Since Ida had shredded roofs and devastated households in marshland areas that faced economic, racial and literacy disparities in rebuilding, the advocates said, an extension would be consistent with FEMA’s 2022-2026 Strategic Plan

A letter sent by Southeast Louisiana Legal Services to Gov. Edwards cited the equity portion of that plan: “A community’s history, culture, racial composition and economic status influence its ability to access federal services. Operating through a people-first approach requires that FEMA resources can be accessed and leveraged by underserved communities in ways that meet their needs,” the plan states. “Addressing disparities requires that FEMA first understand where they exist.”

Bayou villages face steep challenges

Philippe is a native of Grand Bayou Indian Village in lower Plaquemines Parish, which was built more than a century ago by indigenous people. No one there has WiFi or a computer. Many people quit school at a young age to work on the water. And since the village is accessible only by boat, it’s difficult to get contractors to travel there and submit estimates.

Still, to meet Wednesday’s deadline, Philippe’s neighbors had stayed up late into the night, waiting for FEMA’s system to text numerical proof-of-identity codes to their cellphones – not an easy task for people who rise before dawn to work on shrimp boats and maritime crews, she said. 

Her crew of housing advocates would routinely get calls from people lying in bed, who stayed awake until they had recited FEMA’s numerical codes to the advocates, who needed individual codes to upload each appeal. 

“It’s been a challenge and an ordeal,” Philippe said. 

In New Orleans, lawyers for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, which provides free legal aid, kept similar hours. “A lot of us were working until midnight to submit as much as we could. But cases are still coming in,” said Laura Tuggle, executive director of SLLS.

For some people, Philippe’s team appealed denials. With their help, some people were able to submit appeals for the first time, with necessary but hard-to-get documentation, such as damage estimates or, for longtime family homes, further proof of ownership.

If clients are able to settle their FEMA cases, they could also become eligible for the Louisiana Restore Program, which just started taking applications. The program is designed to supply additional disaster aid for low- to moderate-income people who have “unmet needs” that must be addressed before they can rebuild. But to qualify for Restore money, applicants must show certain levels of FEMA-documented home repairs or personal-property damage. 

Philippe was able to file appeals this week and upload hundreds of pages of additional documents for all of her immediate neighbors in Grand Bayou Indian Village. 

But, thanks to the newfound extension until June 1, she will be able to help countless other neighbors in nearby villages. “I know people from neighboring tribes whose cases have not even been touched,” she said. 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that FEMA had approved more than $1.2 million for individuals and households impacted by Hurricane Ida. The amount approved is $1.2 billion. The story has been updated.

Clarification: Some of the tarps originally described as FEMA-blue in this story are
“self-help tarps” that homeowners pick up free of charge and put into place themselves. Others were applied by Operation Blue Roof, a program offered by FEMA through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which provides workers to apply a covering of reinforced blue-plastic sheeting to damaged roofs.

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Katy Reckdahl joins Verite after working as a staff reporter for The Times-Picayune and the alt-weekly Gambit before spending a decade as a freelancer, writing frequently for the New Orleans Advocate |...