Among La. Flood Victims, 'Depression Levels Are Really High'

Aug 24, 2016
Originally published on August 24, 2016 1:35 pm

In the small flood-ravaged town of Springfield, La., Rachel Moriarity waited more than a week for a center where she could apply for emergency food stamps to finally open in the Am-Vets hall — but she's been turned away at the door.

This week they are processing only those with last names beginning with A through D.

"I don't have a vehicle to get here," she tells a staffer from the state, who replies that due to the volume of applicants in need, there isn't anything they can do.

A defeated and exhausted Moriarity sits down on one of the metal folding chairs anyway. She doesn't know if she can hold out until next week for food.

"We don't have it; it's just not there anymore," she says.

At least her husband is back to work, she says. He missed the last five days. They lost both their cars in the flood. She has a FEMA voucher for a rental. But she's been told there are no cars available for at least three weeks, and anyway the nearest place to rent one is in Alabama.

"It really is hard, I mean, you look at your neighbors and you look at all the stuff that's on the street and you don't even want to go outside," she says. "But then you can't stay inside all the time, so the depression levels are really high."

Moriarity's crisis is far from unique. In Louisiana, more than 115,000 people have now applied for aid, and at least as many homes and businesses are ruined or badly damaged. Authorities expect the numbers to keep climbing.

Along a 100-mile route across the southern part of the state, the sheer scope of loss can be overwhelming.

The narrow country highways that fan out from Springfield are lined with piles of couches and furniture ruined by floodwater. Debris from gutted mobile homes is piled at the ends of dirt driveways. On one road, a handmade sign next to some abandoned cars reads "you loot, we shoot."

About 45 miles to the northwest of Springfield, Al McGee races to get his home cleaned out and all the Sheetrock removed, before the mold takes over.

"We're tearing all the walls out, we've gotta dry it all out to the brick," he says, with fans humming in what used to be his kitchen.

McGee is 79. He's wearing a back brace. He and his wife are on a fixed income, now living with relatives. He chokes back tears when he says he doesn't know what he'd do if his son-in-law wasn't driving up here every day from New Orleans to clean and rebuild.

"He's been more than good to me," McGee says. "It means the world to me."

McGee is not expecting much help from his insurance company or the government. Like most folks in this rural neighborhood outside Baton Rouge, he has no flood insurance. Until the storm that dumped nearly two feet of water beginning Aug. 11, not a drop of water had ever entered the house in the 45 years he's lived here.

"Everything is just miserable," he says, "and then having to live in somebody else's house and you don't know where anything is."

One of the biggest problems right now is finding enough workers to gut all these homes and haul away all the debris. Now that the floodwater has receded, sanitation workers are resuming pickups, but the scope of the work is staggering. More than 50,000 homes in East Baton Rouge Parish alone are said to be affected.

And then there are the places farther to the west along Interstate 10 that are still inundated by floodwater after almost two weeks.

In Lafayette, George Alexander puts on a pair of rubber boots and wades through mucky, fouled water to check on his elderly neighbor's mobile home for the first time since they evacuated. He is surprised to find only a little bit of water damage inside. The same can't be said for his own house next door where he's lived since 1959.

"If you go in there, everything's floating," Alexander says.

The water is still chest high. Alexander says mildew has set in and everything inside is buckling. He's doubtful he'll get to move back.

But he knows he's luckier than some of his neighbors — he has flood insurance. And right now he's staying with his daughter. Hundreds more people around here are still living in shelters.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Louisiana, there's talk of clean up, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The damage to flooded buildings and cars gets worse by the day. Authorities now say more than 115,000 people have applied for aid, and at least as many homes and businesses are ruined or partially ruined. To get a sense of the scope of the loss, NPR's Kirk Siegler traveled a hundred miles across the southern part of the state.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In the small town of Springfield, La., Rachel Moriarity waited more than a week for a disaster food stamps applications center to finally open up in this AMVETS hall, only to be turned away at the door.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: This week we're only doing A through D.

SIEGLER: Her last name starts with an M.

RACHEL MORIARITY: I don't have a vehicle to get here anyway.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I understand, and we have a lot of people in that situation, but we can't - all we can do is A through D.

SIEGLER: A defeated and exhausted Moriarity sits down on one of the metal folding chairs anyway. She doesn't know if she can hold out until next week for food.

MORIARITY: It's just - we don't have it. It's just not there anymore, you know? So we just thought we'd try to get some food stamps to help even out the bills a little bit.

SIEGLER: She says at least her husband went back to work. He had missed the last five days. They lost both their cars in the flood. Now, she has a FEMA voucher for a rental, but she's been told there are no cars available for at least three weeks. And the closest place - Alabama.

MORIARITY: It's just depressing. It really is hard. I mean, you look at your neighbors and you look at all the stuff that's on the street. And it's like you don't even want to go outside, but then you can't stay inside all the time, so the depression levels are really high.

SIEGLER: Moriarity's crisis is far from unique. The narrow country highways that fan out from Springfield are lined with piles of couches and furniture ruined by floodwater. Debris from gutted-out mobile homes is piled up at the end of dirt driveways. On one road, a handmade sign by some abandoned cars reads, you loot, we shoot.

AL MCGEE: All right, if you go down to the first road and turn to the right, that's Joor Road. It's right in front of Buddy Tucker's.

SIEGLER: About 45 miles to the west, Al McGee is racing to get his home cleaned out and all the sheet rock gutted before the mold takes over.

MCGEE: He see how the water's - the stuff is starting to buckle in there. All that's nothing but mold in there - mold on the wall.

SIEGLER: Fans are humming in what used to be the kitchen.

MCGEE: You know, we're tearing all the walls out 'cause we've got to dry it all the way back to the brick.

SIEGLER: McGee is 79. He's wearing a back brace. He and his wife are on a fixed income, now living with relatives. He chokes back tears when he says he doesn't know what he'd do if his son-in-law wasn't driving up here every day from New Orleans to clean and rebuild.

MCGEE: He's been - he's been more than good to me.

SIEGLER: McGee is not expecting much help from his insurance company or the government. Like most folks in this rural neighborhood outside Baton Rouge, he has no flood insurance. He says not a drop of water had ever entered the house before this storm.

MCGEE: Tough is not the word. It's been miserable. You know, it just - everything is just miserable. And then having to live in somebody else's house, you know, and everything - and you don't know where anything is.

SIEGLER: The folks here tell me one of the biggest problems right now is finding enough help - workers to gut all these homes and haul away all the debris. Now that the floodwaters have receded, sanitation workers are resuming pickups. But the scope of the work here is staggering. More than 50,000 homes in East Baton Rouge Parish alone are said to be affected.

You travel another hour west outside Lafayette, and some places are still underwater, after almost two weeks. Here on the side of a busy road, George Alexander is talking to his elderly neighbor, offering to go check on his mobile home.

GEORGE ALEXANDER: I could go to the door. If you want me to look inside, I can go see.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Do you need him to get inside, Pop?

SIEGLER: In rubber boots, Alexander wades through the mucky, fouled floodwater. Inside, he's surprised to find only a little bit of water damage. Alexander's own house next door, that he's lived in since 1959, is in far worse shape.

ALEXANDER: If you go in there, everything's floating.

SIEGLER: We don't because the water's still chest-high. He says the mildew has set in, and everything inside is buckling. He doubts he'll get to move back.

ALEXANDER: I'm waiting - I'm waiting for FEMA and my insurance right now.

SIEGLER: Alexander knows he's luckier than some of his neighbors. He has flood insurance. And right now, he's staying with his daughter. Hundreds more people around here are still living in shelters. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Lafayette, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.