Locals In Flooded Rural Areas Of Louisiana Say Aid Is Slow To Arrive

Aug 26, 2016
Originally published on August 26, 2016 3:35 pm

When 2 feet of rain fell, and the Vermillion River swelled its banks earlier this month, the mayor of Maurice, La., Wayne Theriot, got hit with a double whammy: He lost his home and his office. The two are just a couple of hundred yards apart in this small town of about 1,000 people that straddles Vermillion and Lafayette parishes in a largely rural corner of the state.

"You're in City Hall — what's left of it," he says, pointing to the ruined furniture and computers in the tiny three-room building.

The walls are stained by fouled floodwater and fans are running nonstop to try to dry things, a familiar whirling sound across southern Louisiana these days.

The computers are ruined. His staff and their spouses are hauling out boxes of files into a modular building next door that will serve as the temporary city hall. Theriot and his wife are now living in an RV they happened to buy a little while ago.

"That motor home was big when we bought it," he says, laughing. "But now that we're livin' in it, it's getting smaller and smaller."

He figures they'll be in it for the next three or four months.

But this town is pulling together and getting through this, he says. It's part of Cajun culture. "That is, we help people. We don't wait; we buckle down, pull up our boots and head out and help people," Theriot says.

In the two weeks since historic rain pounded the state, there's been a lot of attention paid to the recovery underway in the hard-hit Baton Rouge area. But in more rural places like Maurice, locals say aid has been slower to arrive. Until recently, some places around here were cut off by flooded country roads, and some areas are still underwater. But as in Baton Rouge, the need here is overwhelming.

"DIY" home demolition

Down the road, Wayne LeBlanc is digging into his ice chest for a bottle of water in the back of his pickup. Wearing a rubber back brace, he is tired and in need of a break from gutting out his house and workshop, which took in about 2 feet of water.

With the help of his family and some students from the school where his daughter teaches, LeBlanc has gotten almost all of the walls and insulation torn out. Battered furniture and debris are now piled almost 15 feet high on the side of the road.

"They all pitched in. Everybody came here and busted butt," he says, between drinks, with sweat pouring down his face.

LeBlanc filed his FEMA claim more than 10 days ago, but has yet to get a response. He couldn't afford to wait on the demolition any longer with the threat of black mold taking over. For now, he's staying in his camper at his sister's house, a short drive away.

"I'm fortunate. I've got a roof over my head. I can go home in the afternoons and sleep at night," he says. "There's a lot of people in Lafayette and Vermillion parish who do not have a home."

Bracing for hurricanes

About 10 miles south, in Abbeville, Mara Brown is getting used to the sound of the fans and this industrial humidifier running constantly in the first floor of her home.

"I have never seen dehumidifiers this big before," she says, pointing to one that's running in what used to be her kitchen.

After several days of calls and no shows, her family finally found a willing contractor to help with the demolition. The first one the family hired never turned up.

"We've never been through this before, so we didn't know," Brown says. "And the contractor was good enough to tell me, 'Look, I've never done this before so I'm just learning, as you are.' "

In her backyard the murky floodwaters of the Vermillion River are still just a few feet away. The trunks of oak and cypress trees are still underwater.

"I never thought the river would come up this high," Brown says. "With all the hurricanes, it's never come up [more than] half of what it's come up."

Locals like Brown are nervously watching the forecast right now, with two possible hurricanes building to the south. She has no plans to start rebuilding until hurricane season is over.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In southern Louisiana, some areas are still flooded nearly two weeks after the region was inundated by historic rain storms. Aid has been slow to arrive in rural areas of the state. NPR's Kirk Siegler sent this report.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: If you had to pick one consistent sound in southern Louisiana right now, it'd be these huge industrial fans trying to dry everything out. They're humming along in the three-room city hall in the small town of Maurice. Wearing a white polo shirt with black embroidered letters that read mayor, Wayne Theriot moves a couple of boxes and a broken chair so we can talk.

WAYNE THERIOT: You're in city hall, what's left of it.

SIEGLER: The computers are ruined. The staff and their spouses are hauling out boxes of files into a modular building next door that will serve as the temporary city hall.

THERIOT: One of my biggest challenges is I lost my home - trying to deal with that as well as trying to deal with this.

SIEGLER: He and his wife are now living in an RV that they happened to buy a little while ago. He figures they'll be in it for the next three or four months. But by the grace of God, he says, this town will get through this.

THERIOT: I know that you're from out of state and maybe unaware of our culture - Cajun culture - and that is we help people. We don't wait. We buckle down, pull up our boots and head out and help people.

SIEGLER: Another reason they didn't wait is because, until recently, a lot of places around here were cut off by flooded country roads - hard or impossible for aid to reach. And just like in Baton Rouge, the need here is overwhelming.

WAYNE LEBLANC: You want some water?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm good...

LEBLANC: Yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...But it looks like you need some. (Laughter).

LEBLANC: Yeah, I could use some.

SIEGLER: Down the road, Wayne LeBlanc is digging into his ice chest in the back of his pickup. He's tired, hot and sweating from dealing with his house and workshop, which took in about 2 feet of water. He filed his FEMA claim more than 10 days ago - no word yet.

LEBLANC: If you wait on government or you wait on the help from the government-wise - I mean, FEMA hasn't even showed up yet.

SIEGLER: He can't wait. Otherwise, the black mold will take over. So with the help of his family and some students from the school where his daughter teaches, LeBlanc gutted his entire house. Battered furniture and debris is now piled up almost 15 feet high on the side of the road.

LEBLANC: And they all pitched in. Everybody came here and busted butt.

SIEGLER: LeBlanc is staying with his sister nearby. His camper is parked in her driveway.

LEBLANC: So I'm fortunate. I've got a roof over my head. I can go home and go in the afternoon and sleep at night. But there's a lot of people in Lafayette and Vermilion Parish that do not have a home.

SIEGLER: He's still trying to clean out his workshop.

LEBLANC: Let's see.

SIEGLER: He's ripping particleboard off the wall, wearing a back brace for support.

LEBLANC: You can see that water just stayed there, you know?

SIEGLER: Nearby, in Abbeville, Mara Brown is getting used to the sound of the fans and this industrial humidifier running constantly in the first floor of her home.

MARA BROWN: I've never - I have never seen dehumidifiers this big before.

SIEGLER: After several days of calls and no-shows, her family finally found a willing contractor to help them with the demolition.

BROWN: We've never been through this before, so we didn't know. And the contractor was good enough to tell me, look, I've never done this before, you know, so I'm just learning as you are.

SIEGLER: In her backyard, the murky floodwaters of the Vermilion River are still just a few feet away. The trunks of oak and cypress trees are still underwater.

BROWN: I never thought the river would come up this high. If you look out there, you'll see how far the river is. With all the hurricanes, it's never come up maybe half of what it came up.

SIEGLER: And people like Brown are nervously watching the forecast right now with two possible hurricanes building to the south. She has no plans to start rebuilding until hurricane season is over. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Maurice, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.