The gist: Identified as a place at “higher risk” for evictions, Lafayette will receive a second and larger round of federal stimulus dollars intended for housing aid during the pandemic. At just under $1.4 million, the block grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development nearly doubles the last allocation Lafayette received, one the Guillory administration used to stand up a small business grant program.
Housing advocates say the money adds flexibility but likely falls short of the overall need. Hundreds of Acadiana households remain in hotels with FEMA footing the bill, although that program is no longer taking on new clients. Sustained unemployment threatens to add more need to a largely under-resourced network of nonprofits, which is coordinating responses not only to the pandemic but also recovery efforts after Hurricane Laura. Acadiana Regional Coalition on Homelessness and Housing now has case managers helping those in the hotel program moving into stable housing. ARCH Executive Director Leigh Rachal says the latest round of funding could help that process move more quickly or go toward a longer-term solution. Acadiana’s shelter system is tapped out and stretched to its limits by the pandemic.
“It’s sort of like a community operating without an emergency room,” Rachal says of the lack of shelter space. “If you have a medical crisis, you need an emergency room. These funds, because they’re so very flexible, provide some opportunity for the community to really think through what we need to do more holistically.”
Hollis Conway, director of Lafayette’s Community Development Department, says his office is working on a community needs assessment to sort out the best use of the money.
HUD’s messaging on the allocation focuses on housing. In a press release announcing the nearly $2 billion allocation, HUD said it is exhausting what remains of the $5 billion set aside for community development block grants through the CARES to help “places with households facing higher risk of eviction.”
“These funds can help households struggling to meet their rental or mortgage obligations to stay afloat as our nation continues to recover from the coronavirus pandemic,” U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson said in the HUD release.
Communities used funds from earlier rounds to tackle a variety of emerging needs, including housing, business support or to buy equipment like personal protective gear and testing supplies. Lafayette used all of its first grant — $852,000 — on a small business program that has struggled to move cash quickly and widely as promised. LCG has since shuffled around $560,000 in regular federal housing dollars and will chip $100,000 out of the small business recovery program to meet housing assistance needs.
Louisiana will receive $27 million in this round of block grants. HUD’s release says states received priority for funding based on their level of unemployment and the current severity of their coronavirus outbreaks. Louisiana experienced one of the worst coronavirus rebounds, which has abated in recent weeks.
Hundreds of thousands in Louisiana remain out of work or underemployed. Around 232,000 Louisiana workers filed continued jobless claims for the week ending Sept. 9. Just over 10,000 people in Lafayette Parish filed continued claims that same week. In May, the state peaked at 321,000 claims. Acadiana’s shelters remain tapped out. This week, the $300 boost to unemployment checks tacked on by the federal government will end, reducing the maximum weekly benefit to $247, among the lowest in the nation. Economists project Louisiana will not have recovered all jobs lost by 2021.
The Louisiana National Guard delivered FEMA-issued face shields to Our Lady of Lourdes today to help the hospital staff safely care for coronavirus patients.
The gist: Dozens gathered at a private home in Lafayette’s Quail Hollow neighborhood to get answers from public officials on efforts to relieve flooding in what was one of the hardest hit areas in the floods of August 2016. Begging for projects that would make inches of difference, residents were told there was meaningfully little that could be done in the near term.
Work on a coulee lateral that drains part of the neighborhood has stalled. Two gas lines were discovered by work crews in the last few weeks, according to Public Works drainage coordinator Fred Trahan, pausing cleanup on the ditch that runs behind Cornelius Street, near Comeaux High School. Most of the homes on Cornelius flooded in 2016. Some have flooded again since.
LCG’s drainage project dashboard lists the project as under budget and on schedule to have been finished at the end of June. Residents have been clamoring for the work to be done on the lateral — designated Isaac Verot Coulee Lateral 7 — since 2016. Trahan said in an email to The Current that the project was at one time ahead of schedule, but weather delays and the discovery of the two gas lines interrupted work.
Quail Hollow and its sister neighborhoods aren’t designed to handle recent flooding events. Trahan noted the 40-year-old subdivisions were built long before developers were required to add detention facilities to capture stormwater and reduce runoff. Increasingly intensifying rains are overwhelming a system built for lighter rains. Public Works is considering a diversion project for the bowl-shaped basin, an intervention expected to be costly and long in the making.
“Can we do it? Yes. But it won’t solve the problem,” Trahan said, explaining that the backflows in 25-year storms would still topple into homes.
Cost could prohibit any real solution. Meanwhile, people are trapped in their homes. What interventions have been offered, many by frustrated residents, are unlikely to shave much more than an inch off of rising water levels during a big storm. Several homes have gone on the market since 2016, with no takers. Much of the neighborhood is now part of a 100-year flood zone, meaning at elevated risk, according to FEMA flood maps adopted in 2018. That wasn’t the case when many residents bought their homes years ago.
“One day, it may be cheaper to do buyouts,” Trahan told me.
The coulee behind Cornelius can’t handle the added volume of water shedding into it from widespread development and urbanization, UL geosciences professor Gary Kinsland told me last year. Kinsland’s mother-in-law lives in the neighborhood, and he surveyed the area following the 2016 floods. He’s studied the relationship between urbanization and increased flooding in Lafayette Parish. In Kinsland’s opinion, routine maintenance wouldn’t prevent flooding related to the collision of intensifying rains and proliferating pavement.
Officials promise that efforts are underway. Councilwoman Nanette Cook and State Rep. Stuart Bishop, who represent the neighborhoods at local and state levels, respectively, reiterated steps taken in their arenas of power. Cook reminded residents of a proposition on ballots this fall to divert $8 million in library funds to drainage and other capital projects, and noted she added a $5 million line item to LCG’s budget for spot dredging in the Vermilion River, a project generally believed to have limited, if any, impact on flooding in Quail Hollow. Bishop, for his part, promised to push the state department of transportation to clear out blockage under state bridges and pressure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move on the Vermilion.
“Obviously, we don’t want to leave, because we’re here fighting for our homes,” said Melanie Roy, a Cornelius Drive resident. Roy demanded that nearby retention ponds, which she says maintain a high water level for aesthetic purposes, be lowered ahead of named storms. Trahan conceded it was feasible but cautioned that it may not do much good.
“Can we try it?” Roy replied, exasperated and drawing applause from her fellow residents.
Why this matters: Stormwater management is a quagmire in the parish and a political lightning rod. Simply put, no two drainage problems are alike, and in a time of limited resources, competing concerns are inevitable. In some cases, authorities are throwing pennies at $10 problems. Meanwhile, residents are emotionally drained by years of flood anxiety and what they see as inaction.
The gist: FEMA will soon announce an overhaul in how it calculates flood risk. The changes, first reported by Bloomberg, could increase premiums, lower property values and change public perception.