S2 E3: The Cavalry
S2 E3: The Cavalry
After repeated storms, people in Lake Charles expected the federal government to help them rebuild their battered city. That’s what they had been promised. That’s what had happened after previous storms.
But this time was different. The federal government was slow to allocate money needed for rebuilding. Then FEMA denied assistance to thousands of people who needed a place to live, including Alexis Sheridan, who was pregnant and had resorted to living in a tent.
In this episode, we learn why the federal government kept thousands of storm victims waiting. And why similar neglect could happen anywhere in the nation.
TRANSCRIPT OF THIS EPISODE
It was the morning after I left Alexis Sheridan and JJ Jones, sleeping in a tent in the rain in downtown Lake Charles. I’d gotten up early and gone out looking for them.
(Music fades out.)
(SFX of street near Wendy’s)
Lauren Rosenthal: I’m looking for Alexis and JJ. Have you seen them? A pregnant woman and a man with a long gray ponytail.
I searched on foot with our producer Jamie. We came across this guy sitting in a Wendy’s parking lot.
Man: I ain’t see them today, but I know who you’re talking about. ‘Cause I have seen them sit over by them buildings.
Jamie Hobbs: Thank you so much.
Lauren Rosenthal: Thanks.
Jamie Hobbs: Alright, let’s see.
(Sfx parking lot)
We followed his directions out to the street. And started walking up the block.
Lauren Rosenthal and Jamie Hobbs: Oh! Hey!
We almost missed them. But Alexis and JJ were resting behind a row of bushes out in front of the Wendy’s, almost hidden from the street.
Lauren Rosenthal: How are you doing?
Alexis Sheridan: Oh, my gosh.
They’d had a rough night where we left them. Sleeping in a tent, under a COVID vaccination canopy in a parking lot downtown.
Alexis Sheridan: Like, I didn't sleep half the night. And look, that thing was popping and creaking. And I was like, “whoa.” But then I wake up and I'm like, they have water barrels holding it up — like, it wasn't going anywhere.
Alexis and JJ had tried to squeeze in a nap, lying here on a bed of mulch. Most places had rules against loitering. But this spot seemed okay.
Alexis Sheridan: These people haven't told us to leave yet.
JJ Jones: They can’t see us over here either. (laughs)
JJ just wanted to make Alexis smile. But this whole thing was going to start all over again. At the end of the day, they’d have to find somewhere to go. A place to sleep.
Unless someone could help them out of this mess.
This is In Deep, a podcast from American Public Media. I’m Lauren Rosenthal.
The federal government had promised to send help to Lake Charles. But months after the storms, the city was still a battered version of its former self, with nowhere for many people to live.
This is the story of why Alexis and thousands of people around Lake Charles didn’t get help from the federal government. But this isn’t just about Lake Charles. This could happen anywhere. It’s not that the government made mistakes here. It's that the help people were waiting for doesn’t really exist.
This is Episode 3. The Cavalry.
Alexis and JJ needed to get back to their bikes. They’d left them locked up at the Walmart across town the night before. We offered to give them a ride back over there.
(SFX of Walmart shopping carts)
When we got to the Walmart, the bikes were right where we’d left them. But something was sticking out of the crate tied to Alexis’ handlebars — an envelope. She picked it up and peeked inside.
Alexis Sheridan: Why is she doing that! She put a hundred dollars in here. What is she doing?
There was a note. This was money for phone minutes, because Alexis had run out.
Alexis Sheridan: Please message me the number of the phone that will be on. Love to you three.
You three. Meaning, Alexis, JJ and the baby they had on the way.
Alexis Sheridan: That's so sweet!
The note was signed by Dominique Darbonne. I knew that name. Because Dominique was one of the founders of Vessel Project along with Roishetta Sibley Ozane. I’d been talking with both of them for months. They’d helped hundreds of people in Lake Charles since the storms. And now, they were helping Alexis.
Alexis had texted them that morning using free wifi from a building somewhere downtown.
Alexis Sheridan: Ms. Roishetta is trying to get into a FEMA trailer, which would be a lot better, you know. Because everything would be taken care of, she said, instead of trying to apply for additional assistance like every two months, you know, and worrying whether you’re going to get denied or not, when you already signed a lease. You know, that makes sense. Makes a lot of sense.
But Alexis’ case was going to need some work. The last time she applied for help, she’d been denied. It made no sense to her. She’d sent in dozens of documents and photos to prove she was eligible.
Alexis Sheridan: There are 41 things I wrote down that I needed to submit. Forty one. Forty one.
Alexis said she could show me. Everything was stored in her FEMA account online. She connected to the store’s free wifi and logged in to FEMA’s website.
(SFX phone beeping)
Alexis scrolled down the page, past photos of her damaged house, past a picture of the big green tent she and JJ had set up in a friend’s yard. And she got to a letter.
Alexis Sheridan: And download it and see what it says.
Alexis had gotten this letter a few months earlier. She’d been living in the tent. And decided to ask FEMA for extra help finding housing, because she couldn’t find any. This was FEMA’s response. She passed the phone to me.
Lauren Rosenthal: I'm going to read it out loud. ‘FEMA has determined you are not eligible for continued rental assistance because you do not own or rent a traditional form of housing.’
Alexis Sheridan: I was in a tent. I mean I rented before, you know what I mean? Like, I don’t get it.
In case you didn’t catch that — FEMA denied Alexis because she’d been living in a tent after the hurricanes destroyed her rental house. Alexis had nowhere else to live. Now, she was also almost seven months pregnant. But FEMA’s answer was still no.
Alexis Sheridan: Like what? Who is additional rental assistance for if it's not for people that are stuck in tents — that used to have homes? You know what I mean?
Alexis definitely wasn’t the only one who was turned down even though she desperately needed help. More than 250,000 households in this part of the state had asked FEMA for help after the hurricanes. And just over two thirds of those households had been denied.
FEMA is the first phase of assistance that the federal government sends in after a huge disaster. I didn’t understand how someone like Alexis could get turned away.
So, I decided to make a trip.
Lauren Rosenthal: I’m told to park down over there by the poles. OK.
The day after I dropped Alexis off at her bike, outside the Walmart, I drove two hours east to a squat brick government building in Baton Rouge. Louisiana’s capital city.
Lauren Rosenthal: Hi, how are you doing?
And I met up with this guy —
John Long: I'm John Long.
— sporting a mustache and an official looking lanyard.
John Long is the federal coordinating officer for FEMA’s response to the hurricanes that hit Lake Charles. In the decade-plus that he’s been with FEMA, John Long has helped respond to storms all around the country. Someone like him is put in charge in the early days after a disaster, to coordinate among state and local agencies. He can move resources around to help meet people’s basic needs.
But in Lake Charles, there seemed to be a shortage of FEMA trailers and RVs. The agency had provided six times as many temporary housing units, the last time Lake Charles got hit by a big hurricane. When I asked John Long why, he said I shouldn’t try to compare storms like that.
John Long: No two disasters are alike. So I can tell you that our processes are a little bit different now.
And that was true, based on what I’d heard from experts and from people in Lake Charles. Especially after Hurricane Katrina. FEMA was criticized then for providing trailers to people that turned out to be toxic to their health. Now, it seemed like the agency was more careful. And a little less willing to provide people with trailers to live in.
Like Alexis Sheridan.
Lauren Rosenthal: And I have to tell you her story because I haven't been able to make heads or tails of it. I'd like to hear your take. This is a pregnant woman who has been unhoused since Hurricane Laura (fade under)
Lauren Rosenthal: And she had to conclude after her interaction with that caseworker, that that was because she was living in a tent. She didn’t qualify for rental aid?
Was that right? I asked John Long, and he said based on the details we provided — yes. Alexis would be denied.
John Long: We give you two months up front to pay your rent, to pay your deposit, get you going. And then to continue it, you have to show receipts that you're spending the money on rent. So if you go buy a tent and camp in somebody's backyard, you've made a decision that, yes, has made you ineligible for continued rental assistance. Now, that's not to say that there's no assistance available.
He said community groups and faith-based organizations could help fill the gap for a person like Alexis. And he was right. After Alexis slept outside in the rain under that COVID vaccination canopy, Dominique and Roishetta paid out of pocket to get Alexis into a hotel.
Lauren Rosenthal: As we sit here and speak, she's being housed in a hotel that's being paid for by a grassroots organization. That's two women, just two people. Is that how this system is supposed to work?
John Long: You just. No, the system is not designed to be that way. But there usually are reasons why, you know, people have fallen through the cracks or aren't being helped by the system that's in place.
From here, our conversation kind of took a turn. Because John Long asked about a sheltering program that Alexis could have taken advantage of as the first hurricane was moving toward Lake Charles. Instead of putting everyone in huge, communal shelters at sports arenas, the government offered hotel rooms outside the city, where people could wait out the storm.
It was supposed to be temporary. But some people were allowed to stay in their hotel rooms for months, because there was nowhere else for them to live. Alexis told me she’d found out about this option way too late. She’d already gone back to her damaged house, and she stayed there until she was forced to leave. I wasn’t sure what John Long was getting at. It seemed like he was saying Alexis messed up, by not signing up for that hotel program or by not knowing about it in the first place.
Lauren Rosenthal: It's their fault?
John Long: Well, it's not necessarily that it's their fault, but again, it's a business of people and people have to communicate and make things known.
Lauren Rosenthal: When you say business of people, what do you mean?
John Long: We're going to have to wrap this up. Really.
We were supposed to keep it to thirty minutes but we’d been talking for over an hour. John Long had to get back to work.
John Long said something that stuck in my head — that line about a business of people. At first, I didn’t get it. But I think what John Long is saying is that FEMA wants to help. But they demand that people meet them halfway.
The agency doesn’t just give out trailers or money for rent. If you want that kind of assistance, you have to apply. But most people get told no.For the last few years, FEMA’s been denying people at record high rates. That’s where most people stop. With that first rejection letter.
But not everyone is willing to take no for an answer. And believe it or not, it's possible to work the system. You can turn things in your favor by filing appeals. But most people don’t.
Doing things this way creates winners and losers. Research has shown that when FEMA distributes disaster aid in wealthier communities, with more time and resources to fight for assistance, those communities tend to come out even richer. Poorer areas — like the neighborhoods Alexis lived in before the storms — those neighborhoods are more likely to lose wealth.
Alexis is white. But there are clear racial disparities, too.
Beverly Wright: There's a pattern that exists in recovery.
Beverly Wright runs the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, in New Orleans. And she also advises the Biden administration on things like disaster recovery.
Beverly Wright: Where the rules seem to be set up to favor the valued white people in our society and the despised minorities are at the tail end of being a recipient of things for recovery.
She says it’s well established that Brown and Black families are likely to receive less financial support from FEMA overall, compared to white families. FEMA has admitted there are real problems with the way it distributes aid. And they’ve promised to work on it, which Beverly Wright is all for.
Beverly Wright: So using an equity lens to examine processes for delivering services to communities, I think, is a really good start.
But in the meantime, disasters just keep happening.
And FEMA keeps getting called in to help, contributing to uneven recoveries that can change a community forever. Beverly Wright says she saw it happen as a resident of New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Beverly Wright: There are lots of physical things you can get back. But what you can't get back is the destruction of your community, the feeling of community, because everybody could not come back. And nothing was the same.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what I can tell you, after talking to experts, and reading reports, and talking to people who work for FEMA itself.
This agency was never meant to help communities recover and comprehensively rebuild from a disaster. The way our system works, FEMA is supposed to put a band-aid on things — provide immediate logistical help and temporary shelter. Then, FEMA is supposed to move on.
Samantha Montano: So this is definitely something that there is widespread misunderstanding about.
Samantha Montano is an assistant professor of emergency management and author of the book Disasterology. She says the public doesn’t seem to understand that FEMA is not responsible for helping communities recover long-term.
Samantha Montano: And that's not the directive that FEMA has been given. That's not their mission. It never has been.
When it started, FEMA was more focused on civil defense than natural disasters.
Garrett Graff: FEMA, when it was created under Jimmy Carter's administration, was an attempt to jumpstart the nation's preparedness and civil defense efforts at a particularly dire-seeming moment in the Cold War.
That’s Garrett Graff, a journalist who’s written a lot about FEMA. In its earliest days, he says, FEMA’s goal was to make sure people had a shot at surviving a nuclear attack on American soil. The Cold War eventually let up.
Garrett Graff: Lo and behold, the government was like, well, we've built all of this disaster relief and response capability, so let's begin to deploy some of that expertise, some of that stockpile to help rebuild from these more routine disasters.
Things like tornadoes, hurricanes and floods, which just kept coming.
By the late ’80s, we ended up with the FEMA we know now. The agency does a lot of planning and prep work. And if a disaster happens, FEMA can get deployed to help out on the ground. It can also handle logistics — making sure people have access to things like fuel and freshwater.
Garrett Graff: That seems really boring until you really desperately need it.
And it’s easy to overlook. FEMA is chronically underfunded and understaffed, yet its list of responsibilities just keeps getting longer. FEMA has been assigned to help resettle refugees and assist unaccompanied kids at the border with Mexico. At the height of the pandemic, FEMA was setting up vaccination clinics nationwide. And FEMA is expected to play a huge role in preparing communities to deal with climate change, so they’re less vulnerable to worsening storms and fires.
Maybe the only thing that’s not on FEMA’s to-do list is managing the long-term recovery of a place like Lake Charles. Physically rebuilding the city, and rehousing the people who got displaced.
(Music fades out)
It’s a huge undertaking, Samantha Montano says. Not something a community can do by itself.
Samantha Montano: They do not, on their own, have the resources to make it through a recovery. They need the resources of the federal government.
And FEMA is the most visible presence the government has after a natural disaster. FEMA is actually on the ground, which is one reason people in Lake Charles expected so much from it. But if it’s not really up to FEMA — then who?
Once the trailers have been delivered and the tarps have been nailed to roofs, once people have access to electricity and freshwater? It turns out, the only way to get long-term help to actually rebuild housing and bring the people home — is to go through Congress.
Clay Higgins: Thank you, Madam Speaker.
That’s Representative Clay Higgins speaking on the House floor in May of 2021. Higgins’ district includes Lake Charles and the surrounding area. He told his fellow members of Congress that the need for aid back home was getting dire.
Clay Higgins: And as a republic of sovereign states, we have never failed to come to each other's rescue in the wake of natural disaster. Now is one of those moments. This is a time when Americans must stand together as one.
It’s no secret that Congress has trouble getting things done — even approving disaster aid, which used to be straightforward. Aid packages came together fast, and passed with bipartisan support. The president signed off, and the money began to flow.
There’s nothing that says Congress has to provide this kind of assistance. But it’s become expected. And in Lake Charles’ case, it was also promised.
Two different presidents visited Lake Charles in the months after the hurricanes. Donald Trump and Joe Biden both pledged comprehensive aid for Lake Charles. But after they left, nothing happened.
Finally, an aid measure appeared in the House of Representatives. Clay Higgins — the congressman who represents Lake Charles, who you heard just a minute ago — voted against it.
Here’s why Clay Higgins voted against aid for his own district. It’s because this bill to help Lake Charles became part of something much bigger. Because instead of a standalone aid package, the money was tied into a massive bill that also raised the borrowing limit on our national debt.
Every Republican in the House voted no. Including Clay Higgins. We asked for an interview with him, but we never heard back. He did put a statement on YouTube, explaining his position.
Clay Higgins: It would require 31,000 years to address a $31 trillion debt. Future generations of Americans deserve better. Stand up, America. Stop the debt.
In the last few years, both parties have accused each other of using disaster relief for their own political gain. Sometimes, it’s a bargaining chip to get the other side to make a deal. Other times, it’s simply a means to make a point. A way to show off.
The communities that need the help get stuck waiting to see which side wins. And the people whose job it is to rebuild — people like Pat Forbes — they get stuck waiting too.
Pat Forbes: Oh, this is easily the longest we've ever gone between disaster and congressional appropriation for the funds.
Pat Forbes is the executive director of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development. It’s a state agency, with a whole team that does nothing except distribute federal aid in communities hit by major disasters. That's right. Louisiana has a standing team whose sole purpose is to manage disaster aid from the federal government.
The team’s been around since Hurricane Katrina. As aid money was pouring in back then, Pat Forbes and his colleagues rushed to set up loan programs and grants.
Pat Forbes: Whenever we first started the work, we assumed that we would be working ourselves out of a job before too long. That was the intent. But since then, we've had multiple, multiple other disasters. And they just keep coming.
The makeshift team that was managing that money became permanent. Louisiana is now better prepared than a lot of states to rebuild from disaster, because it has this standing team. But getting the money out to people always takes time. When Congress drags its feet, the whole recovery process gets delayed.
Pat Forbes: All the federal processes that have to follow the appropriation, those don't get shortened by virtue of the fact that the appropriation came so late. We're still in the throes of completing those administrative hurdles to be able to get the money out there and get it to work.
More than a billion dollars got approved to rebuild Lake Charles and the surrounding area. And in the fall of 2022, the money finally started to flow into the region. On average, it takes about four years to do the rebuilding. In Lake Charles — which is trying to recover from multiple storms — it could take longer.
Here’s another way to think of this. What that wait really means. Alexis Sheridan was seven months pregnant when I met her. By the time Lake Charles is rebuilt, that child might be starting first grade.
Alexis’ baby was born at the end of July 2021.
Alexis Sheridan: Hello.
Lauren Rosenthal: Hello. How are you?
I called to see how she was doing.
Lauren Rosenthal: Oh, my gosh.
Alexis Sheridan: He’s sleeping. He's 11 days today.
Lauren Rosenthal: How is he doing? How are you doing?
Alexis Sheridan: I'm doing good. I was exhausted. We changed his formula yesterday. He finally slept five hours, then three hours, then five hours.
The baby had blonde hair, just like his mom, and bright blue eyes. They named him Kannon. When the baby came, Alexis and JJ were no longer sleeping outside. They each got a bed at a sober living facility in Lake Charles. Women and men were separated, which meant JJ was staying in a different building down the road.
It wasn’t ideal. Not by a long shot. But Alexis told me she was still holding out hope for FEMA. She’d met this new worker who was really trying to help. And he was local, working on the ground in Lake Charles.
She gave me his number.
Lauren Rosenthal: Am I catching you at an okay time? I know you're out and about.
FEMA worker: I am stuck in traffic here in Lake Charles, but we could talk about the case. Yeah.
This FEMA worker told me he’d been wracking his brain to try to figure out how to get help for Alexis and JJ. He looked at their file, and found they hadn’t qualified for a FEMA trailer.
FEMA could potentially give them money for rent. But the housing market in Lake Charles was still a mess. There was one other option. The worker knew that Alexis had stayed in hotels throughout her pregnancy. It gave him an idea.
FEMA worker: A hotel is a mini lease, right? Because you already know the time you're going to stay, and the time you’re going to check out, and the rates.
Maybe there was a way to count hotel bills as rent. It sounded like he was throwing everything at the wall, but nothing worked.
Lauren Rosenthal: So at that point, what did you figure was the next step?
FEMA worker: Well, there is no there is no next step for me. So, uh, that's where I tried to get other referrals. That's outside of FEMA's process.
He said Alexis could try to get help from charities and mutual aid groups. Eventually, Alexis says FEMA closed her case. She never received additional aid.
So that’s what I found. I’d gone to Lake Charles to find out why the system we have for helping people after disasters didn’t seem to be working.
What I found was that that system doesn’t really exist. In a lot of ways, we’re making it up as we go along. And that’s going to be a problem. In a world with more damaging storms and fires, that occur more frequently than they do now, it’s hard to imagine how the government will keep up. And that’s exactly what we’re facing due to climate change.
But there is one other place people can turn that should be able to help us rebuild.
Danielle Guillory: You pay them every month and you’re like, in case something happens, I’ve got this insurance. And I’ll be taken care of. They’re just going to give me what I need. And it wasn’t that way at all.
That’s next time on In Deep.
In Deep is reported and produced by me, Lauren Rosenthal, with help from Jamie Hobbs, Anna Canny and Nancy Rosenbaum. Additional reporting this episode by Renata Sago.
Our editors are Chris Julin and Dave Mann. Thanks to Catherine Winter, Caitlin Esch, Bridget Bodnar, Kori Suzuki, Annie Baxter and Chris Worthington. Fact checking by Betsy Towner Levine. This episode was mixed by Derek Ramirez. Our web editor is Andy Kruse. Original music by Jelani Bauman. You can find more information, pictures and links to all our episodes at indeep.org.
Photo of people in Lake Charles before Hurricane Laura in August 2020 by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | AFP via Getty Images.