Three Years After Floods, 36% Have Received Their Grant Money

More than 65,800 residences were impacted by flooding in August 2016, according to federal data. Of the 15,634 who were offered grants through Restore Louisiana, 12,980 homeowners have been sent checks as of July 26.

by Kristen Mosbrucker, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. / August 13, 2019
In this Aug. 13, 2016, image made from video and released by WAFB-TV, David Phung rescues a woman and dog from a submerged vehicle in Baton Rouge. AP

(TNS) — Three years after floods swept across portions of southern Louisiana, only 36 percent of homeowners who applied for help through the Restore Louisiana program have been approved for grants and about one-third have received checks for repairs, according to a recent report from the relief program.

There was more than $1.2 billion in federal funds allocated for rebuilding efforts following floods in March and August 2016, but only $575 million was offered to homeowners across the state. Of that total, $412 million was disbursed as of July 26. Any remaining funds are expected to be reallocated to other Restore Louisiana programs, including rentals, temporary housing, flood insurance assistance, business and farmer assistance.

More than 65,800 residences across East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes were impacted by flooding in August 2016, according to federal data.

Restore Louisiana, a statewide program meant to aid homeowners looking to rebuild after the flood through the use of federal dollars, collected more than 56,200 initial surveys from residents about damages and ultimately 43,205 homeowners applied for grant assistance.

Of those who applied for grants, only 15,634 homeowners were offered grants through Restore Louisiana and 12,980 homeowners have been sent checks as of July 26.

Restore Louisiana found that 11,000 homeowners were given zero awards because they had received duplicative benefits from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Small Business Administration or private flood insurance that was greater than the cost of the damages. That number is expected to drop after new SBA guidance in July that opens the door for homeowners to receive some grant money even if they were awarded or drew down on SBA funds to make home repairs.

Private flood insurance is still considered a duplication of benefits. Nearly 10,600 were considered ineligible for a variety of reasons such as not having severe enough damage or ownership issues. Another 5,800 homeowners withdrew their applications during the process.

The duplication of benefits issue compounded the issue of homeowners receiving grants for repairs.

“The SBA delay cost a lot of people a lot of time,” said Pat Forbes, executive director of the Office of Community Development.

Under the new federal guidance, checks were cut in early July to 230 homeowners across the state who were previously denied grants because they applied for SBA loans and declined or cancelled the SBA loans. Another 800 residents who either declined or cancelled their SBA loan but have not yet signed a grant agreement with Restore Louisiana will receive notices of their increased awards. The agency will work to finalize their grant agreements.

For others awaiting assistance from Restore LA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is expected to take up to 45 days to approve Louisiana's plans — which is anticipated to happen by October.

About 99% of all Restore Louisiana grant determinations have been completed, but there are still 139 homeowners who applied for aid but don’t know if they will receive any grant money. Some of those who are awaiting grant determinations are those who previously withdrew from the program but have been reinstated under the new SBA guidance, and others are still required to submit more information to the program. Most grants were decided by September 2018. There are still nearly a dozen homeowners appealing the state’s decision.

Statewide, there were more than 15,600 grants worth about $575 million.

About 12,100 homeowners across the parishes of East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension were offered grants totaling $434 million. Of that, only $329 million in grants have been disbursed to 10,395 homeowners in those parishes as of July 26.

In Lafayette Parish, 724 homeowners were offered nearly $21.9 million in grants. So far, 644 have taken $17.8 million in grants.

One reason for the difference between the grant awards offered and amount dispersed to homeowners is that all federal funding is included for total cost of construction. So homeowners have responsibility to use other assistance money for repairs before the Restore Louisiana funds are applied.

About 90% of homeowners who allowed Restore Louisiana to manage contractors have had repairs completed. Restore Louisiana anticipates that by the end of the year most of the home rehabilitation — which are described as repairs — will be completed. Total home reconstruction projects are expected to wrap up in early 2020.

"The vast majority of those who got individual assistance from FEMA that was specified for repair of their home had to use it on something else, like a car to get to work," Forbes said.

A homeowner with a $15,000 check from FEMA is responsible to allocate that much money towards home repairs — regardless if the funds were used for something else — and must come up with the difference before grant money is released.

"We could give them a $50,000 grant for $65,000 in repairs but not until they have that $15,00 in escrow," Forbes said. "Some are struggling to meet their homeowner's responsibility."

Restore Louisiana has gotten creative to figure out ways for homeowners to come up with the money, such as deferring minor parts of the repairs like painting or turning to non-profits or lenders to fill the gap.

Still, only 9,500 homeowners have completed rehabilitation or reconstruction of residences since August 2016, that’s more than double the number of homeowners who had wrapped up all construction work on their houses as of August 2018, but there are 6,000 homeowners still doing repairs. Some of that delay stems from homeowners’ negotiations with contractors.

“If they have their own contractor to get the work done and request progress inspections from us, we have very little control over that,” Forbes said.

Most grant recipients — about 6,100 in all — opted for a combination of homeowner-managed construction to rebuild and reimbursement for work that’s already been completed. Fewer than 500 homeowners opted to allow Restore Louisiana to manage the construction process.

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