August 8, 2017 – Beau Evans
Six months after a powerful tornado blew through New Orleans East, the signs of physical mending are evident. Smooth new planks have replaced the splintered walls of some homes, while workers atop the roofs of other homes hammer away to fill gaps blown open by the winds of the strongest tornado ever recorded in New Orleans.
But the road to recovery remains long for many people whose lives changed on Feb. 7, when the EF-3 tornado battered hundreds of homes in neighborhoods surrounding Chef Menteur Highway and Bundy Road. Some homes still look blown apart, the roofs on others are still gone and, along several streets, houses leveled to the ground have not begun to be built back up.
On Monday (Aug. 7), exactly six months after the tornado hit, about 100 neighbors in New Orleans East joined local relief groups and city officials to take stock of the recovery effort. They met at Resurrection of Our Lord Catholic Church, on Hammond Street at the outskirts of the damage zone, to learn more about resources available for repairs and to take home back-to-school supplies for the kids.
For some, like 12-year resident Stevenson Emmerett, Monday’s gathering was a chance to continue strengthening community bonds in the tornado’s aftermath, which came just over a decade after Hurricane Katrina devastated these same neighborhoods in 2005. The tornado damaged his roof, destroyed his carport and ripped out the screens on his patio doors, but Emmerett said his insurance is covering all that.
For others, like Rhett and Pat Ralph, big questions loom over whether federal dollars or insurance will cover the full cost of home repairs.
To date, nearly $3 million in disaster relief aid has been doled out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to 588 applicants in Orleans and Livingston parishes, both of which saw damaging EF-3 tornadoes on Feb. 7. But Rhett Ralph said Monday that he and his wife were denied FEMA assistance because they draw “too much money from our retirements,” even though he said the tornado totaled his family’s two cars and caused around $40,000 in damage to the house.
Insurance has chipped in for house repairs and car replacements, Ralph said. But he’s not sure whether his coverage will recoup all of his family’s losses, not to mention deductible costs and depreciation factors that Ralph said are burdensome.
“We didn’t come out rich on that deal, let me tell you,” he said, just before chowing down on a bowl of beans spooned out by church volunteers Monday evening.
The Ralphs’ experience is characteristic of what many tornado-struck families are going through now, according to Mary Smith, a case manager for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. Some older individuals and families are living on fixed retirement with austere day-to-day budgets, but still are denied FEMA aid for having too much income.
Others are in a tough spot because they never thought to get wind insurance for their homes. One study completes in May by the nonprofit group SBP found nearly a third of all homeowners affected by the tornado may be either under- or uninsured.
That squares up with what Smith says she sees among her case management clients.
“They might have flood insurance,” Smith said Monday. “But who thought they’d need insurance for a tornado?”
Since mid-February, Smith said she and the rest of Catholic Charities’ case management team have closed 165 cases out of a total 315 families, meaning they’ve helped those families find housing or money to rebuild their homes. That leaves 150 still in need of help. Those numbers only apply to FEMA applicants, Smith clarified, and do not represent the full scope of people with unmet needs – most of whom are renters rather than homeowners, Smith added.
Despite the progress made over the last six months, Smith and other relief organizers Monday said recovery funds are drying up.
The city had awarded around $2 million in HUD and community development block grants to local groups for tornado relief so far, and officials say the city has qualified for a total $5.4 million in individual assistance from FEMA. But SBP has estimated that around $10 million would likely be required for the residential recovery effort, with between $3 million and $5 million needed in local fundraising.
Around 20 groups, collectively called the Long Term Recovery Group, are leading the charge to raise more funds and match that money to people with unmet needs. But it’s an uphill battle, according to Kathy Wendling, the group’s co-chair along with Smith and the Director of Community Service and Development for the ministry-based nonprofit Camp Restore.
“We’re at the stage now where we’re trying to appeal to national groups to help,” Wendling said on Monday.
On the home front, Councilman James Gray says it may be time to reach into the city’s purse to help people slipping through the cracks. Gray, who represents New Orleans East, said Monday that he’s trying to drum up city funds to provide loans for those who have exhausted every other outlet for assistance.
“I think right now we need to start having some hard discussions about it,” Gray said Monday. “It’s been six months now and we still have some gaps, people who are still short.”