Nearly one third of Louisiana’s parishes were underwater last week, but the country’s attention was fixated elsewhere.
Rain began falling on Friday, August 12. In some of the hardest-hit areas, it rained for days on end. Rivers ran backwards, levies overflowed, and the water kept rising.
Once the rain stopped, I immediately began touring damaged areas, meeting with local, state, and federal officials, and helping coordinate response efforts. The incredible resiliency and spirit of the people of Louisiana is inspiring, to say the least.
On Sunday, August 14, as I toured neighborhoods with standing water several feet deep in Youngsville, Louisiana, our truck pulled alongside a young man fishing in his front driveway. I asked him if he’d caught anything. “Two bass and an eel!” he replied with excitement, brandishing a proud smile that belied the damage all around him.
I talked with residents as they floated supplies down the street to their neighbors who were in need of water and food. Flood victims waved from cookouts in their front yard, standing in water up to their calves. The Chief of Police, acting as our guide, pointed out his own flooded house. He had no time to begin cleaning up because he was working around the clock to keep his community safe.
The stories are powerful and heartbreaking. But in Louisiana, frustration is mounting that the rest of the country could care less.
It took the president of the United States over a week to come to Louisiana. While the floodwaters rose, he continued to play golf on Martha’s Vineyard – a decision that struck many in my home state as callous. Especially after the media took former President George W. Bush to task for a supposed lack of empathy for victims of Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago.
The New York Times, to its credit, apologized in an editorial to its readers titled “On Gulf Coast Flooding, The Times Is Late to the Scene.” In the editorial, the Times notes that reader Catherine Holmes of Georgia wrote to the paper: “Disappointing that Trump’s latest gaffe and the Olympics totally dominate your front page this morning, when so many in south Louisiana are suffering.” Similar stories highlighting the lack of focus on the crisis ran in USA Today, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, and Salon.
Arriving in Louisiana last Tuesday, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told me, Governor Edwards, and Congressman Cedric Richmond that he didn’t believe official Washington had any idea of what was going on in Louisiana. It took the agency several days to declare sixteen parishes that had been hit with severe flooding a disaster area, unlocking access to federal assistance for affected families. By Wednesday, 70,000 people in Louisiana had applied for assistance through FEMA.
Many of the victims don’t live in a federally-designated flood plain, meaning they have no flood insurance to recoup damages.
Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon estimates only 14 percent of Lafayette residents affected by the flooding have flood insurance, and only 12 percent in Baton Rouge.
Even for those with flood insurance, the maximum disbursement is $250,000. While FEMA and private aid will help make up some of the difference, it could easily not be enough for many residents.
Applicants in non-flood zones may only receive up to $33,000 in assistance from FEMA. If this disaster requires supplemental assistance from Congress, I worry Members who haven’t been informed about the damage in Louisiana may not have the information they need to make good decisions when the body reconvenes in a few weeks.
The Red Cross labeled this 500-year flood “the worst natural disaster to strike the United States since Superstorm Sandy.” On the ground in Louisiana, many are already calling this disaster the ‘Forgotten Flood.’
Governor John Bel Edwards surmised part of the reason this disaster has flown under the radar is due to the lack of a catchy name.
Unfortunately, now it has one. And that’s a shame.
Congressman Charles W. Boustany, Jr., MD, represents Louisiana’s Third Congressional District covering Lafayette, Lake Charles, and Morgan City.