Filed Under:  Local

Tornado recovery in New Orleans East could take up to another year

18th September 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

By all accounts, an initial outpouring of support to victims of February’s New Orleans East tornado was generous and appreciated. But seven months later, it’s evident that federal and other funding isn’t enough to get everyone back on their feet. Well over a quarter of the area’s homeowners were uninsured when an EF-3 tore through neighborhoods on February 7.

“Some people here aren’t back in their homes, and lots of businesses and homeowners can’t afford to do any more work on their buildings,” Paul Lucky Jr., owner of Lucky’s Car Wash and Repair on Chef Menteur Highway, said last week. He wishes city leaders would devote less time to tourists and instead concentrate their attention on local needs. Other business owners, residents, politicians and nonprofit staffers agree that the tornado-ravaged area still needs a hand.

For many whose residences and  businesses were in the destructive path of the February 7 tornadoes that touched down in Eastern New Orleans, recovery has been painfully slow.

For many whose residences and businesses were in the destructive path of the February 7 tornadoes that touched down in Eastern New Orleans, recovery has been painfully slow.

Formerly the St. Bernard Project, SBP, a disaster-recovery group in New Orleans, surveyed the tornado-torn area in February, with the help of AmeriCorps volunteers. Ninety volunteers canvassed 3,984 homes and found that 882 of them were damaged. Of those, 245 homes suffered major losses to half or more of their structures, and 249 dwellings were moderately injured. The city’s initial estimate, meanwhile, was that 300 homes had sustained major damage.

Among the affected homeowners, SBP judged that 71 percent were insured and 29 percent were uninsured. The area’s damaged properties would cost somewhere between $7 million and $18 million to repair, SBP predicted. But so far, funding from the feds, the primary source of assistance, is below that range. SBP has shared its data with the City of New Orleans.

“We’re working with the Orleans Parish Long-Term Recovery Group, a collection of federal, state and city agencies, along with local rebuilding non-profits and service agencies, to identify resources to help our families recover and move back to their homes,” New Orleans Councilman James Gray II of District E said last week. “As long as one family is still trying to rebuild, our job isn’t done. We want to make these families whole again.”

Catholic Charities at the Archdiocese of New Orleans is among those participating in the LTRG. The recovery group hopes to find skilled labor, volunteers and other resources for work that remains. Members hammered out plans and finalized documents in August and September, Tom Costanza, division director with Catholic Charities in New Orleans, said last week. Members include individuals from the American Red Cross, AmeriCorps, City Council District E, Evacuteer, NOLA Tree Project, RAI Ministries, Rebuilding Together New Orleans, SBP, Second Harvest Food Bank, United Saints, United Way of Southeast Louisiana and VIET.

Last week, FEMA spokesperson Vanessa Winans said the February7 tornado was declared a major disaster four days later by President Trump. Since then, 588 Individual Assistance applications from Orleans and Livingston parishes have been approved by FEMA. Over $2.9 million has been okayed for Orleans through the agency’s Individual and Households Program, including nearly $2.3 million in Housing Assistance. These loans help with home repairs and temporary housing. FEMA also approved $435,226 in Other Needs Assistance to Orleans residents for medical and dental care, funeral costs and transportation expenses.

“We didn’t activate a mission involving manufactured housing units for this disaster because enough local rental resources were available to meet that need,” Winans said. FEMA’s manufactured units are mobile homes.

Winans said that long-term, low-interest disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration are often a major source of assistance in disasters. The SBA approved 19 home disaster loans to February tornado victims, totaling $804,500, but no business loans, SBA spokeswoman Carol Chastang said last week. Terms for SBA’s home disaster loans are up to 30 years.

City agencies have been active at the tornado site, especially right after the event. A temporary shelter was opened at Joe W. Brown Recreation Center on Read Boulevard. The 7th District Police patrolled the devastated area with the Louisiana National Guard around the clock. Five residential debris passes or pickups were made, ending on March 24. The Sewerage & Water Board sent crews daily to stop leaks and make repairs. The Housing Authority of New Orleans helped displaced tenants, who had vouchers, find new places to live. Building permit fees were waived. And the city directed some of its community-development block grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the recovery.

Donations from restaurants and other local businesses have been substantial. “But in this and most other disasters, a funding gap exists for people trying to get back into their homes and rentals,” Costanza said. Recoveries take time. He estimates that New Orleans East will need about 18 months from February 7 to become whole.

LaPlace in St. John the Baptist Parish recovered from a February 2016 tornado in about seven months. “But it was smaller than the East’s event and involved around 200 homes,” Costanza said.

Case managers at Catholic Charities have closed 190 of their family cases, out of a total of 315 that the group began working on at the Joe W. Brown shelter last February. In the cases that are shut, managers helped families file FEMA applications and find housing or money to rebuild.

Seven months after a disaster, cobbling together the last pieces of financing to repair a home, even with federal assistance, can be a challenge, Jon Luther, chief executive officer of Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans, said last week. If a homeowner has a mortgage, the bank sees to it that the owner has wind and flood insurance. “But some of the people who’ve already paid off their mortgages choose to take risks by not carrying wind and/or flood insurance at all,” he said.

HBAGNO held a New Orleans East forum after the tornado to advise residents about repairing damaged properties and dealing with FEMA, SBA, the city and contractors. Home Builders has given away storm recovery materials since then. “We were founded in New Orleans 76 years ago and want to assist the community where we live, work and raise our families in any way we can,” Luther said.

What sort of damage occurred in February? The tornado raced ten miles through New Orleans East. “The worst of it was in the area along, and just north of, Grant Avenue from Charlmark Drive to Read Boulevard,” the National Weather Service said in February. “Nearly every home there suffered a complete loss of roof structure, and exterior walls collapsed in several homes.” Second floors were destroyed on three, two-story houses as winds reached 150 miles per hour, the NWS said.

The tornado struck NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and the U.S Department of Agriculture’s National Finance Center building, which is leased from Michoud. “Several buildings and facilities across the plant were damaged, but after repairs, NASA operations are fully up and running,” Jennifer Stanfield, National Aeronautics and Space Administration spokeswoman, said last week. Michoud has 3,500 employees.

With its building uninhabitable, the NFC sent 250 of its 1,300 New Orleans East employees to work upstate in Bossier City. Most of its staff remained local, however, and worked remotely. By June 30, those who were upstate had returned home, and many of them now work in the NFC’s interim office—which is also on Michoud property. NASA is reviewing options for its shuttered NFC building, according to USDA last week. Today 500 NFC employees work on the Michoud property, and the others telecommute.

At the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness, spokesman Mike Steele said FEMA’s response to the tornado was prompt. “FEMA set up a disaster center less than a week after the event, and that was as fast as they could have done it,” he said. On February 13, FEMA’s center opened at East New Orleans Public Library on Read Boulevard for homeowners, renters and businesses seeking help. Steele also said that relations between state agencies and FEMA had strengthened in the dozen years since Katrina as officials coped with a series of storms, floods and other disasters.

Luther said the spotlight has shifted to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma recently, but that doesn’t mean that the work in New Orleans East is done. For his part, Paul Lucky wants city leaders to focus their attention on the East again and not be so consumed with the French Quarter and the Bywater and events like the Bayou Classic.

This article originally published in the September 18, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Readers Comments (0)

You must be logged in to post a comment.