As Tropical Storm Laura rapidly transformed into a Category 4 hurricane and barreled toward the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2020, residents of southern Louisiana had little time to react.
In Lake Charles, Tasha Guidry was thinking about how to evacuate with her elderly parents in the middle of a pandemic, a task made more difficult because of unsafe conditions at public emergency shelters and price-gouging at hotels with limited availability. Ultimately, she stayed and watched the storm eviscerate her community. The destruction never seemed to stop — just over a month later, the Gulf Coast was battered by yet another major hurricane, Delta.
Hundreds of homes and businesses around Guidry ceased to exist. The retired couple next door is living in a trailer outside of their storm-damaged house. More than 700 days since Hurricane Laura, they’re still waiting for their insurance company to pay out their policy.
Guidry’s own home survived Laura well enough to safely live in it, but the structure has sustained tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage in floods since then. Private insurance won’t cover the structural repairs, Guidry says, and it’s unclear when funds from the state-run program Restore Louisiana will be made available to her. If another storm hits the community before she can repair her home, she questions how she will be able to stay in her home of 43 years.
“I’ve thought about if I have to evacuate again for a storm, that I may not come back,” she said.
The experience pushed Guidry to use her expertise as a lawyer to help neighbors navigate federal aid programs and the private insurance process. The effort revealed to her a critical inadequacy of these systems to address the growing threats of climate change. There are many “holes and gaps,” she said, that leave people like herself under-protected by federal support and private insurance.
“While natural disasters do not ever discriminate, recovery always does,” Guidry said from her home, which has sustained an estimated $80,000 in storm damages. “This happens in every city across the nation; it doesn’t matter big or small. When it comes to recovering, everybody’s traumatized — we’re all going through the same thing, but recovery will always come first to the areas where the higher tax base is.”
Hurricane Laura — and the two years’ worth of major weather events that have struck Louisiana since then — has highlighted a hurricane-sized hole in the country’s ability to keep its residents housed. Government agencies have fallen short in supporting evacuations during storms, often failing to open up enough shelters, offer modes of transportation, and create a uniform warning system.
But even after the immediate crisis ends, another begins, as weather-battered communities try to rebuild. The private home insurance industry in Louisiana is crumbling as multiple companies have gone bankrupt or stopped insuring homes in the state’s most destruction-prone regions. And funding for housing repairs has failed to keep up with growing demand in coastal communities hit with multiple disasters per year, creating an imbalance in housing supply and demand.
The burden of the crisis has fallen on low-income people and Black communities. Historically, racist housing policies relegated Black and brown residents to areas most likely to be hit by extreme weather events. When those disasters strike, renters are ineligible for most supportive funding options and find themselves at the mercy of their landlords. And the extensive — sometimes yearslong — process to receive government support for damaged property has often left Black homeowners behind.
“As storms hit Louisiana, the government failed to provide adequate assistance for low-income renters, failed to get homeowners the support they needed, and now we have a flat-out insurance crisis,” said Andreanecia Morris, executive director of the housing advocacy nonprofit HousingNOLA. “The safety net of ‘housing for all’ to protect families during the pandemic is gone.”
The aid gap
Following a weather disaster, Americans’ support options fall into a few categories: federal support provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development; state support through institutions like the Louisiana Department of Insurance; and private support from insurance companies like State Farm.
Federal and state options often favor wealthier residents who already have the resources and time to wade through the long and complicated reimbursement process. Similarly, private insurers can be expensive, pricing out renters and lower-income homeowners.
Research has shown that FEMA’s funding also supports white disaster victims more than people of color, regardless of the damage a family faces. Even when Black residents receive aid, white people who receive the same amount of federal assistance see their wealth rise, while Black residents see their wealth decline following disaster, a recent study by Rice University found.
In May, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi introduced the FEMA Equity Act to address these discrepancies, but a divided Congress has stalled it.
In Louisiana, Morris, the New Orleans-based housing advocate, outlined several ways FEMA has failed along racial lines. Most shockingly, she says, the government continues to “struggle in getting trailers deployed to rural Black communities” for hurricanes Laura and Delta, which hit nearly two years ago.
Since last October, HUD has made about $2.3 billion available to Louisiana to fund repairs, with about $500 million earmarked for Lake Charles. (According to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, that still leaves the state needing roughly $1 billion for repairs.)
But, as the New York Times reports, HUD and FEMA often work against each other. FEMA typically limits temporary housing options for residents to a mere 18 months, but HUD generally takes two to four years to dish out money to residents for their home repairs.
While federal funds have been hard to come by, more than 100,000 homeowners in the state have lost their private home insurance. This year, six insurance companies discontinued their Louisiana services before fully paying out their insurance policies to residents, while 50 more limited their services in the state’s hardest-hit regions.
Earlier this month, a state judge ruled that the insurance companies are not responsible for paying out certain expenses owed to residents. In the aftermath, those fortunate enough to still have a private insurance plan have reported that their yearly rates have tripled.
The housing crisis
That gap in federal assistance along with the private insurance crisis has left some Louisiana communities with more residents than available housing. As a result, apartments and houses have become increasingly expensive in a tight housing market. Many families have been left in a challenging situation where it is too expensive to repair their current home and too costly to find a new one.
Since 2020, an estimated 25,000 homes in the state have been destroyed by storms. That, combined with general inflation, has raised the state’s average price to buy a home by 22%. The average rental price has jumped 18%.
The Bayou State is not an anomaly. As housing prices reach all-time highs, roughly one-third of the nation’s housing stock is at high risk for disasters. In an interview last year with Grist, Morris said, “Climate change is also a housing crisis.”
The housing shortage and rising prices have prompted migration out of the region. Since 2020, Lake Charles — which is 50% Black and surrounded by oil refineries — has lost a greater share of residents than anywhere else in the United States. Most residents, however, are not leaving the state, but moving north to Louisiana communities where housing is more accessible.
An uptick in deaths from COVID-19 and work-from-home policies also have played a role in the population decline, but Guidry argues that population loss was largely driven by the region’s “unfathomable” amount of disasters.
“One thing people don’t understand is after a storm, the best thing that you could do is go somewhere where you don’t have to come right back while you wait for funds to rebuild,” Guidry explained. “This is not a luxury for most people, however, because most people live paycheck to paycheck, and recovery funds aren’t guaranteed. So you’re forced to pack up and move with whatever little money you have and try to rebuild a life, most often, in poverty.”
Guidry’s work has included pushing landlords to rebuild and repair their rental properties while retaining the same tenants. After hurricanes, it is common practice for landlords to evict tenants under the guise of remodeling and rebuilding battered units before driving up their rents to attract wealthier lessees.
The situation in Lake Charles, which has garnered attention from President Joe Biden, exemplifies the country’s inability to adapt to climate change, said Morris.
“When COVID first started, there was this big focus on keeping people in their homes,” she said. “But it’s obvious we had blinders on facing climate change’s role in accessing housing.”