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Locals In Flooded Rural Areas Of Louisiana Say Aid Is Slow To Arrive

Debris from flood-damaged homes lines Highway 167 in Maurice, La.
Kirk Siegler

When 2 feet of rain fell, and the Vermillion River swelled its banks earlier this month, the mayor of Maurice, La., Wayne Theriot, got hit with a double whammy: He lost his home and his office. The two are just a couple of hundred yards apart in this small town of about 1,000 people that straddles Vermillion and Lafayette parishes in a largely rural corner of the state.

"You're in City Hall — what's left of it," he says, pointing to the ruined furniture and computers in the tiny three-room building.

The walls are stained by fouled floodwater and fans are running nonstop to try to dry things, a familiar whirling sound across southern Louisiana these days.

The computers are ruined. His staff and their spouses are hauling out boxes of files into a modular building next door that will serve as the temporary city hall. Theriot and his wife are now living in an RV they happened to buy a little while ago.

"That motor home was big when we bought it," he says, laughing. "But now that we're livin' in it, it's getting smaller and smaller."

He figures they'll be in it for the next three or four months.

But this town is pulling together and getting through this, he says. It's part of Cajun culture. "That is, we help people. We don't wait; we buckle down, pull up our boots and head out and help people," Theriot says.

In the two weeks since historic rain pounded the state, there's been a lot of attention paid to the recovery underway in the hard-hit Baton Rouge area. But in more rural places like Maurice, locals say aid has been slower to arrive. Until recently, some places around here were cut off by flooded country roads, and some areas are still underwater. But as in Baton Rouge, the need here is overwhelming.

"DIY" home demolition

Down the road, Wayne LeBlanc is digging into his ice chest for a bottle of water in the back of his pickup. Wearing a rubber back brace, he is tired and in need of a break from gutting out his house and workshop, which took in about 2 feet of water.

With the help of his family and some students from the school where his daughter teaches, LeBlanc has gotten almost all of the walls and insulation torn out. Battered furniture and debris are now piled almost 15 feet high on the side of the road.

Wayne LeBlanc's home and shop in Maurice, La., were inundated with floodwater. While he awaits word on his application for FEMA assistance, he is staying in his camper at his sister's place nearby.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
Wayne LeBlanc's home and shop in Maurice, La., were inundated with floodwater. While he awaits word on his application for FEMA assistance, he is staying in his camper at his sister's place nearby.

"They all pitched in. Everybody came here and busted butt," he says, between drinks, with sweat pouring down his face.

LeBlanc filed his FEMA claim more than 10 days ago, but has yet to get a response. He couldn't afford to wait on the demolition any longer with the threat of black mold taking over. For now, he's staying in his camper at his sister's house, a short drive away.

"I'm fortunate. I've got a roof over my head. I can go home in the afternoons and sleep at night," he says. "There's a lot of people in Lafayette and Vermillion parish who do not have a home."

Bracing for hurricanes

About 10 miles south, in Abbeville, Mara Brown is getting used to the sound of the fans and this industrial humidifier running constantly in the first floor of her home.

"I have never seen dehumidifiers this big before," she says, pointing to one that's running in what used to be her kitchen.

After several days of calls and no shows, her family finally found a willing contractor to help with the demolition. The first one the family hired never turned up.

"We've never been through this before, so we didn't know," Brown says. "And the contractor was good enough to tell me, 'Look, I've never done this before so I'm just learning, as you are.' "

In her backyard the murky floodwaters of the Vermillion River are still just a few feet away. The trunks of oak and cypress trees are still underwater.

"I never thought the river would come up this high," Brown says. "With all the hurricanes, it's never come up [more than] half of what it's come up."

Locals like Brown are nervously watching the forecast right now, with two possible hurricanes building to the south. She has no plans to start rebuilding until hurricane season is over.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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