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After Baton Rouge Flood, Some Displaced Families Stick Out The Holidays In A Hotel


In this holiday season, thousands of Louisiana residents who were displaced by last summer's floods are still living out of hotels. A historic amount of rain fell around Baton Rouge over two days in August. According to FEMA, more than 150,000 households applied for federal disaster assistance. Jesse Hardman of member station WWNO talks to some of these families.

JESSE HARDMAN, BYLINE: Paul Vornado (ph) sits out on a patio with a few close friends smoking a Sunday-morning cigarette. He describes the view.

PAUL VORNADO: I'm looking directly at the interstate, and it's not a neighborhood feeling. It feels like we're in an industrial park.

HARDMAN: This close to the end of the year, Vornado would normally be staring at his own lawn while grilling on the porch. But he hasn't been home since August.

VORNADO: The water just came out of nowhere. I got up in the middle of the night and there was four feet of water in the street.

HARDMAN: Paul Vornado was in his Baton Rouge subdivision when he realized August's epic floodwaters were on his doorstep. His family escaped in a boat and took refuge at a local hotel.

VORNADO: They said they weren't going to except FEMA, so we were paying out of pocket.

HARDMAN: Hotels choose to participate in FEMA's transitional shelter assistance program, which helps cover housing after disaster displacement. After running up a few-thousand-dollar hotel room tab in a few weeks, Vornado and his clan got lucky and found a place that did take FEMA vouchers. That's how he wound up sitting here at the Microtel off the I-10 highway in Baton Rouge.

DEBBIE ALLS: One day we had 20 percent occupancy and within 45 minutes, I was up to 100 percent occupancy and wishing I had more room so I could shelter more people.

HARDMAN: That's Microtel manager Debbie Alls (ph). One hundred and thirty displaced locals started off at her hotel, 80 remain four months later. Tonight, she's cooking chili for the displaced families. She says there's a group meal two or three nights a week.

ALLS: It's a home-cooked meal so they don't have to go out and go to McDonald's every day.

HARDMAN: Life at the Microtel has its challenges. People wind up eating a lot of fast food because they don't have full kitchens.

VORNADO: I've got Popeyes in my car right now. I'll probably eat off that for two days.

HARDMAN: That's Paul Vornado again. His three children and the many other kids at the hotel struggle with the confines of living in a single room. One young boy flies through the hotel lobby past a couple of FEMA caseworkers on laptops. He uses a blanket for a cape pretending he's a superhero.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm Batman. I'm Batman.

HARDMAN: Back in front of the hotel, 50-year-old mother of two Rose Williams (ph) takes a drag from a cigarette. She gets up at 4:30 a.m. every weekday to make sure her teenage daughters can get to their old schools - a longer commute since the family was displaced. Williams says her oldest daughter struggles with anxiety.

ROSE WILLIAMS: Because she was so worried as to, like, why are we still here?

HARDMAN: The answer to that question is a complicated algorithm of FEMA deadlines, contractors, landlords, mortgages, availability of building materials and more. Recovering from a disaster takes time. Some at the Microtel are getting close to being able to move to repaired homes and apartments. Others like Williams and her family still don't have a move-in date.

WILLIAMS: I can't see the future right now.

HARDMAN: FEMA did announce it's extending hotel vouchers another month, which means Williams and her family will get to spend Christmas at the Microtel with the people she's come to rely on over the past four months, a group she now refers to as one big family. For NPR News, I'm Jesse Hardman in Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As the new Coastal Reporter, Jesse Hardman will draw on 15 years of worldwide experience in radio, video and print journalism. As a radio reporter he has reported for NPR, BBC, and CBC, and for such familiar programs as Marketplace, This American Life, Latino USA, and Living on Earth. He served as a daily news reporter and news magazine producer for WBEZ in Chicago.
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