Pamela Metoyer is among the many Baton Rouge area flood victims who have yet to begin rebuilding their homes because they’re waiting on payments from their insurance companies, the Small Business Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Photography by Don Kadair
More than two months after the August flood swamped her Villa Del Rey neighborhood in north Baton Rouge, Pamela Metoyer had yet to receive the assistance she needs to begin rebuilding her home.
The recovery process has become a waiting game that Metoyer says is stressful and senseless. Even with flood insurance, she has had to fight almost every step of the way for adequate assistance. Gathering the necessary paperwork and legal documents to do so has been a time-consuming hassle in itself.
“You go through the process of experiencing the disaster and then going through the recovery process, the obstacles, it’s traumatizing all over again,” Metoyer says.
Her house on Monterrey Boulevard in north Baton Rouge took on two feet of water during the flood, as did many other homes in the low- to middle-income neighborhood. Metoyer, a 63-year-old retired nurse, is now living in an apartment. Her home is stripped down to the studs while she waits for assistance to rebuild. She estimates it be could be January before she can move back into her home.
Her trials are similar to what many others are facing as they deal with flood insurance claims, appraisals, Small Business Administration loans and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Navigating the bureaucracy of it all is one of the biggest challenges, says the Rev. Raymond Jetson, MetroMorphosis president and CEO and member of the governor’s Restore Louisiana Task Force.
Although these issues touch every impacted community and are not unique to one specific area, Jetson says, the burden may be exacerbated in low-income communities that took on water in north Baton Rouge.
“You have people who prior to the flood were living paycheck-to-paycheck and who, because of the absence of flood insurance, are dramatically challenged by this and unlikely to be able to recover to any degree that resembles their pre-storm condition,” Jetson says.
The poor and working class are more likely than their wealthy counterparts to depend on government and nonprofit assistance to rebuild in the wake of natural disaster. But a north Baton Rouge survey conducted by MetroMorphosis in October found that resources and monetary support have taken longer to arrive in north Baton Rouge areas affected by the flood than in other parts of the city.
The majority of north Baton Rouge residents surveyed have not been able to return home since the flood. While 87% sought assistance from FEMA or other agencies, only 68% actually received assistance from those agencies and the funds have been minimal. On top of that, two-thirds of north Baton Rouge respondents said they have not received help from nonprofits.
A specific challenge in low-income communities, which was also seen after Hurricane Katrina, deals with succession. Houses in these communities are often older family homes that have been passed down by generation, usually without legally transferring the title to a new owner’s name. To receive assistance from agencies like FEMA, however, a home must be in the resident’s name.
“Imagine someone in a third generation living in the family home, working, contributing, and through no fault of their own, they flood,” Jetson says. “So where do they turn?”
Legal recourse is available to prove ownership, but it can be difficult and expensive. Anyone who has a legal interest in the home—aunts, uncles, cousins—must be identified and involved in the process before the homeowner can obtain the title. Jetson says it’s a significant problem, but a number of people are working to address it.
Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis says some organizations are looking into providing free services to help prove ownership and transfer titles.
Even for those who do receive assistance, recovery is not guaranteed. If a person is living on a fixed income and didn’t have flood insurance, FEMA assistance alone will not repair a home. And when people do enter into assistance programs but don’t agree with decisions being made, Jetson says, the method of appeal is difficult and unclear.
Collins-Lewis adds that people are also in limbo as to whether or not they can rebuild in compliance with government ordinances.
“There needs to be one conversation on how to move forward,” she says. “Red tape slows everything down.”
If the obstacles grow too large and assistance comes up short, leaders worry residents in north Baton Rouge’s lower-income communities may give up and never come back. When he canvassed neighborhoods north of Florida Boulevard in October, Jetson could not overlook the number of empty, abandoned homes. Some hadn’t even been cleaned out.
“If they don’t return, it would have a profound impact on the community,” Jetson says. “It impacts housing values, property values. It impacts quality of life.”
Metoyer has resources to rebuild her home, but it hasn’t been easy and it certainly won’t be quick.
Her flood insurance covered her home, but not the contents inside, so she was approved for an SBA loan to cover what insurance would not. So far, however, all she has received is a $12,900 advance from her insurance company. The SBA loan was approved four weeks ago but has yet to come in. She was recently given a list of paperwork to fill out and have notarized before any payment can be made.
Having her home’s damage assessed has also been a struggle. Metoyer disagreed with an adjuster’s initial assessment and had to ask him to come back a second time. She went through her proof of loss document with him line by line and emailed receipts to show recent work done in her home. In the end, he increased her assessment.
“Had I not fought with him, I would have gotten only $50,000,” Metoyer says. “He way underestimated what it will take to rebuild my house.”
In total, Metoyer will receive a $77,000 SBA loan to be paid off in 25 years at a 1.563% interest rate, and about $86,000 from her flood insurance claim. The SBA loan is to serve as a bridge until the insurance money comes in, which then should be used to reimburse the SBA. With interest, Metoyer estimates she’ll end up having to pay back about $93,000 on the loan.
In the meantime, FEMA has been of little help, providing Metoyer with only two months worth of rental assistance totaling $1,450. But two months is almost up. She says FEMA won’t provide any other assistance because she was approved for an SBA loan, although she has yet to see any money from it.
If she were still working, Metoyer says there’s no way she could mentally or physically fight this “flood-recovery octopus,” as her friend—who also flooded—calls it. With all the paperwork, legal hoops and back and forth with adjusters, insurance companies, FEMA and SBA, the process is as much exhausting as it is confusing.
“Don’t try to make sense of it,” she says. “This is really not designed in the flood victims’ best interest.”