LAPLACE, La. — The first attempt to assess the scope of damage from the past week’s historic flooding in Louisiana has produced staggering numbers.
Approximately 280,000 people live in the areas that flooded, according to an analysis released Friday by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. In those flood-affected areas are 110,000 homes worth a combined $20.7 billion and more than 7,000 businesses — about one in every five businesses in the region — that together employ more than 73,000 people.
The figures underscore two of the biggest challenges that families as well as local, state and federal officials face as they work to recover from the unprecedented flooding: How to house those left suddenly homeless, and how to pay for the recovery.
“It doesn’t matter what color you are, what you drive, how much is in your bank account. We all flooded,” said Jeannine Cockerham, a resident of Central, La., which took a heavy hit in last week’s storms.
State officials plan to release information by the middle of next week about how they’re going to address long-term housing plans, Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said at a news conference Friday afternoon. They are considering using trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but that decision hasn’t been made yet, he said.
In the short term, some displaced people — those who have been staying in shelters, in their cars or in hotels — are eligible for a federal program that will pay for hotel stays, Edwards said.
Those who have been staying with friends or family are not eligible for that program. He urged those flood victims to go to a website, lahousingsearch.org, to find available rental units. And he pleaded with landlords to make any vacant apartments or homes available for short-term rent.
“There are people who desperately need access to your housing units,” Edwards said. “I’m asking you to cooperate with us.”
Cockerham’s family, an extended network of brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews, lost 13 homes and 18 cars between them. Cockerham’s house took on more than a foot of water and the pressure from all that rain cracked the sewer pipes, leaving them without a functioning toilet. So when she and her family are at the house working to clean it out, everyone uses a 5-gallon bucket until the sewer system is repaired.
Neighbors, friends of friends, even complete strangers are washing each other’s clothes, ripping out Sheetrock or hauling boxes and bins for each other.
“People are chipping in every way they can,” she said.
But the enormous job of cleaning up and rebuilding is made more difficult by stores that are still shuttered, leaving those that are open struggling to meet the demand for supplies.
“If you go for bread there’s really none, If you go for lunch meat there’s really none,” Cockerham said of the shelves in the area that are nearly bare. It’s hard to find cleaning products “unless you have someone Amazon.com-ing them in.”
And everyone is bracing for a shortage in supplies needed to rebuild, such as carpet, lumber and appliances.
Home Depot and Walmart are out of plastic buckets and fans as well as bleach and the disinfectant Odoban, which people are scrambling for as they try to salvage and sanitize whatever they can.
Business owners are also facing challenges as they work to reopen and meet the needs of their employees, many of whom have been washed out.
“I’d imagine that at least half of our employees were affected in some way. We have many of them that have basically lost everything,” said Emile Breaux, President and CEO of Associated Grocers, a major food wholesaler in Louisiana.
Breaux had employees coming to work the day after their houses were destroyed with just the clothes on their back. They were ready to work — both for the paycheck but also because they needed to work to help the community start picking up the pieces.
For his part, Breaux said he and anyone else who didn’t flood went home and pulled everything they could out of their closets, “and started our own little garage sale of sorts in one of our conference rooms.”
“We started renting hotel rooms,” he said, “getting them personal care and personal hygiene items.” They also started serving meals to employees and their families. The breakroom, still with air-conditioning and cable TV, began to fill with the sounds of camaraderie.
“This provides folks with maybe that last semblance of my normal life,” Breaux said.
The hardest-hit area in the region was Livingston Parish, according to the Chamber report: Nearly 87 percent of its homes and 91 percent of its businesses are in flood-affected areas. Few residents had flood insurance. The value of homes in flooded areas exceeds $9 billion, the report says, but “the combined coverage of all Livingston flood policies, in full force, amounts to less than $2.5 billion.”
Two-thirds of the homes in Livingston Parish carry mortgages, the report says.
The Chamber cautions that its report is a preliminary analysis subject to change as more information becomes available. It does not attempt to assess the actual cost of property damage, but rather the total value of homes in flooded areas. And it does not show the value of other belongings — such as cars, furniture, clothes, and appliances — that were lost to the flood.
The analysis covers the nine parishes considered part of the capital city region. Altogether, 20 parishes have been declared disaster areas, and in some of those areas, water was still rising Friday even as the cleanup continued in earnest further north.
“This disaster is still unfolding like a slow-moving freight train,” the report says.
Everyone is still keeping an eye to the sky as the threat of more rain looms almost every day. The National Weather Service is calling for a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms Saturday and Sunday and a 60 percent chance on Monday. Pop-up thunderstorms, common in Louisiana this time of year when daytime heating often pushes the heat index into the triple digits, can bring downpours and localized flooding — something area residents desperately don’t need.
Netter reported from Slidell, La.