Only a fraction of funding reimbursed to Cameron by FEMA

Published 8:07 pm Friday, September 17, 2021

Recovery from the devastation Hurricane Laura left behind in Cameron Parish continues to be slow going, Administrator Katie Armentor said Friday.

The lack of progress, she said, sits squarely with the parish getting only a fraction of funding reimbursed by FEMA, she said. So far, Cameron Parish has only received $1.2 million out of $52.5 million in estimated damages from Hurricane Laura, she said.

Armentor blames the lack of funding largely on FEMA continually canceling and postponing inspections of identified damages, a basic step that is required in order for money to be reimbursed to the parish. She said the parish has been waiting on inspections since completing its final damage inventory list and submitting it to FEMA in February.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “There’s always an excuse. It has a lot to do with FEMA being understaffed and not taking the severity of damage from Hurricane Laura as a priority. We should be further along with our recovery.”

Armentor said the parish has already spent $12 million from its general fund to cover $30 million worth of debris removal costs. If the parish used its additional resources, services like garbage collection and road maintenance would suffer, she said.

“We’re just operating at the bare minimum, instead of taking the time, effort and money on recovery to prevent and mitigate damage from a future event,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins sent a letter to FEMA Friday, asking the agency to deal with the lack of damage inspections that have hindered approval of public assistance dollars.

“Further delays to the start of this process will require serious oversight and investigation by Congress,” Higgins, R-Port Barre, said in the letter.

Armentor said parish officials spoke with Higgins’ staff Sept. 8 and asked his office for help. She said the timing happened to coincide with the Calcasieu Parish School Board announcing it had to stop construction because of a lack of reimbursement by FEMA.

Since February, FEMA has canceled two work orders, Armentor said. FEMA was supposed to begin scheduling inspections Aug. 16, but Armentor said the agency did not respond. The parish emailed FEMA Sept. 9, with the agency saying Oct. 4 would be earliest it could start scheduling the visits.

“We told them that’s unacceptable,” she said. “It has been a really lengthy process that didn’t have to be.”

While COVID-19 has been the main reason for FEMA canceling or postponing site inspections, weather has also been an issue, Armentor said.

“A lot of these inspectors are coming from New Orleans and Baton Rouge and don’t want to drive in bad weather, even if we’re sunny over here,” she said.

Once an inspector assesses hurricane damages and figures a project worksheet formulation, that information is turned over to the state Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for approval.

“Once GOHSEP gets that (project worksheet), they get money to the parish really quick,” Armentor said. “(GOHSEP) has been wonderful.”

The $1.2 million reimbursed to Cameron Parish so far was for emergency response and preventative measures prior to Laura’s landfall and during the first few days after the storm, Armentor said. That included setting up points of distribution for supplies like water and fuel, as well as clearing roadways to provide access.

Aside from debris removal, another large expense is repairing and rebuilding damaged fire stations and repairing the water tower, water distribution lines and fire hydrants.

Armentor said the fire stations in Hackberry and Johnson Bayou survived Laura’s landfall. However, stations in Holly Beach, Grand Lake, Creole and Big Lake, as well as a substation in Cameron, were severely damaged and have either been torn down or are awaiting demolition.

A house in Creole left uninhabitable after Laura caught fire three months ago, Armentor said. A lack of water pressure left firefighters unable to extinguish it, she said.

Pumps that assist with drainage in Cameron Parish also were damaged by Hurricane Laura, Armentor said. The parish has spent roughly $150,000 from its general fund on temporary patches to keep them running.

“We don’t know how long they can keep running,” she said. “They need to be replaced and elevated. It will be expensive.”

Following Hurricane Ida’s landfall Aug. 29, Armentor said she worries about Southeast Louisiana encountering the same problems with FEMA that Cameron Parish and others in Southwest Louisiana have with Laura.

“I feel sorry for them,” she said. “I sure hope they treat them better than us. We’re being pushed to the end of the line.”

The big fear, Armentor said, is that Cameron Parish will end up even further behind in its long-term recovery from Hurricane Laura.

“If (FEMA) wouldn’t have let this drag on as long as they have and we could have started recovering, we would be able to help the eastern part of the state recover. We’re a good year past Hurricane Laura. What is FEMA going to do with so many other communities on their plate?”