Despite heavy publicity, more than 20,000 households with significant damage from the 2016 flood in south Louisiana never took the first step to tap the $1.3 billion set aside for home reconstruction under the Restore Louisiana program, a new state report says.
The failure to fill out the initial, five-minute damage survey is expected to contribute to 44 percent fewer households than initially anticipated being able to access the recovery money, officials with the state program say.
Higher-than-expected rates of withdrawals from the recovery program -- after homeowners proceed further along in the process -- and higher-than-expected numbers of homeowners who had their potential award canceled out by U.S. Small Business Administration loans, flood insurance and other grants are also contributing to the 44 percent figure.
Of the more than 20,000 households that did not fill out surveys, more than half of them were in the worst-hit parishes during the August 2016 flood: East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston, according to Restore data.
As many as 12,000 of those 20,000 households didn't also receive SBA loans or flood insurance payments and so they likely would have needed help, program officials said.
Households with "major" or "severe" damage as deemed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were eligible for the homeowner program. That means at least roughly 1 foot of water or $8,000 in damage.
In all, the state now expects to spend $649 million on the homeowner program, about half of the $1.3 billion state officials set aside.
The state initially estimated about 36,000 households from the 2016 flood lacked federal aid or insurance money and had bad enough flood damage that they could tap the Restore homeowner program dollars. But program officials now say in a new plan amendment that fewer than 20,000 households in all could ultimately receive some of the federal funding without other changes to the program and federal law.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and the state congressional delegation are pushing to fix an SBA loan policy that restricts the distribution of some awards.
Possible changes in SBA loan guidelines could make money available for 5,000 more households and a planned home buyout program could add 400 to 500 more, boosting overall numbers closer to 26,000 households, said Pat Forbes, director of the state Office of Community Development, which is overseeing Restore.
In all, more than 53,720 households filled out damage surveys before a July 20 deadline. So far, 13,324 households that did take that critical early step and went through the rest of the process have been awarded nearly $438 million in grant money.
Forbes said he hopes to have all applications processed by the end of the year, if not sometime this fall.
But Restore officials were at a loss to explain why so many people would not try to benefit. Forbes said although the program was promoted heavily through the media, billboards and electronic messaging, many Louisiana residents prefer their self-reliance and weren't interested in government help.
"There is definitely a group of people in Louisiana who because they went and got their house rebuilt, they're resilient, whatever, their son-in-law came and helped, they never asked us for money," Forbes said in a recent interview with The Advocate editorial board. "There's just a population in Louisiana that's like that. They don't want help. They did it, and they decided somebody else should get the money."
Restore used FEMA tallies to establish estimates of damaged households. Even using different formulas, Restore and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reached essentially the same cost figure for the homeowner program: $1.3 billion.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican from Baton Rouge whose district encompasses much of the worst-hit areas, said his office, like the state, heavily encouraged residents to fill out the initial survey even if they had doubts that they could get the assistance. But he said people may have considered the paperwork so much red tape.
"The people that we are dealing with, we're hearing a lot of people say, 'You know what? Look. It's just a pain in the butt,' " Graves said. " 'I filled out paperwork for SBA. I filled out paperwork for FEMA. I may have filled out paperwork for flood insurance. I filled the same damn stuff for Restore, and I'm sick of the bureaucracy.' "
Forbes said the state attempted to limit the bureaucracy by tapping existing databases to avoid additional paperwork submissions and speeding up reviews.
Data from Restore Louisiana showed that Livingston Parish had the largest number of households statewide that did not fill out a survey at 4,913.
Mark Harrell, the homeland security director in Livingston, said residents in his parish were just "punch drunk" from the rounds of paperwork and already in an emotional state that left them distrustful of government assistance. Restore likely undercounted the number of Livingston flood victims, he said, because some didn't even seek help from FEMA.
"There's people that didn't do any of it. They just dealt with their loss and moved on," he said.