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Obama surveys Louisiana flood damage; for hardest hit, it’s a long road ahead

August 23, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the aftermath and long road back from the floods in Louisiana.

President Obama promised a sustained national effort to rebuilding southern Louisiana during his visit today, one that he said would last long after the cameras leave. One of the worst-hit areas was Livingston Parish, where 70 percent of the homes suffered damage from the worst floods in decades.

Layton Ricks is the president of that Parish. And I spoke with him by Skype a short time ago.

Mr. Layton Ricks, thank you very much for talking with us.

First of all, tell us, where is Livingston Parish in the Baton Rouge area, and just what shape is it in right now?

LAYTON RICKS, Livingston Parish President: Well, Livingston Parish is just east of Amite River right across from Baton Rouge. We’re a suburb of Baton Rouge, about 141,000 people.

Right now, we’re not in real good shape. If you drove across our landscape, you will see all the water lines, but that’s where we’re located. We’re a suburb of Baton Rouge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When you say you’re not in good shape, spell that out for us. What sort of damage there?

LAYTON RICKS: Yes, well, we had roughly 60,000-plus structures that were affected, damaged in some way by the flood that we just went through.

The water has now receded, but we’re still dealing with the aftermath and have begun the recovery process, but if you drove through our parish right now, you would see a lot of people’s belongings beginning to pile up alongside the road, so that we can start picking it up. And that’s just for the aftermath of the devastation that we’re looking at when we drive across from this flood event that we just went through.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have any idea at this point how much it’s going to cost to bring everything back?

LAYTON RICKS: You know, I don’t. They’re still assessing. They’re still riding around. Our debris haulers are out actually assessing and mapping out, as is FEMA.

So, I really do not. I know just that Juban Crossing Mall alone, the developers tell me that he thinks that is somewhere around a roughly $30 million hit. The mall is roughly a year-and-a-half to two years old. Stores were still opening. We were moving into the second phase actually of the mall opening. That’s just one mall.

So we have got substantial damage here in Livingston Parish.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How would you describe what the main challenges are now facing the people around you? What are you facing?

LAYTON RICKS: Well, I think now we have made it through the rescue phase. We have moved into the recovery phase. Now the hardest part is going to be trying to get people some help to get them back in their homes, which were severely damaged in one way or another by the flood.

It could be anywhere from two inches to eight, nine, 10 feet in some areas. So, the real problem is — because we also have schools that were damaged. So, the real problem and the challenge ahead is to try to get these people back to their homes as quick as we can, so that the kids can get back into the schools once they open, so there’s some sort of normalcy there.

So, we’re hoping to — we certainly will be assessing and helping them do that any way we can, but that is going to be a long, long, drawn-out, slow process, because most people that were severely affected by the flood also lost their vehicles. So they have got to get vehicles. Commercials are down. They’re not working yet. So, they don’t have a job to go to. So, we have got quite a mess right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what sort of outside help do you need from the federal government or anybody else, and do you think you’re getting it?

LAYTON RICKS: Well, you know, FEMA has really stepped up at this point.

I met with Administrator Craig Fugate last week with Governor Edwards and his staff at the governor’s office. It was a very good meeting. They assured us any asset that we need, asked for, it would happen. And so far, it has.

But what I really need right now, which would be really great for our parish and for surrounding parishes, is for the president to declare this a 90/10 payback for FEMA vs. a 25/75. That would help us in government all across the state tremendously with the enormous impact this storm has had.

He can do that, and I hope he will do that very soon, because what that means is the parish will owe back 10 percent vs. the 25 percent. I, quite frankly, don’t know where the 10 percent is going to come from, but I know 25 percent right now is just going to be astronomical.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, as we reported, the president was there in Baton Rouge today. There has also been some political criticism that he didn’t get there sooner. How do you see that? We know Donald Trump was there last Friday.

What do these visits mean for the area? And did the politicians get there as soon as you thought they should have?ha

LAYTON RICKS: Well, you know, as far as I’m concerned, yes.

I didn’t need him to come in the middle of this thing, in the heat of the battle last week. What I needed him to do then was declare a state of emergency. He did that. FEMA ramped up really fast under Governor Edwards, along with, as I said, Administrator Craig Fugate. They were signing off on declarations, helping us get the assets that we needed at that time.

And so, initially, that’s what I needed out of the federal government. I feel like we got that. The argument about whether or not he should have come last week, quite frankly, in my opinion, had he come in the middle of this thing last week, we would have been pulling first-responders away from where they needed to be, the assets that we were using to rescue people, and then to handle the shelters, trying to make sure he was safe while he came into our parish.

So, I felt like he was OK not coming last week. I do think he should have made a couple of phone calls us to. That would have been nice, to at least heard from him. However, as far as really getting things done for me that I needed, I feel like he did that.

The governor’s office has been extremely, extremely helpful to us, and that’s made a big difference. Now, him coming this week today, I’m disappointed that he didn’t call. I’m disappointed that he didn’t come over into our parish, since our parish was the one that was most severely hit.

But, again, however, as far as him directing FEMA, I think they’re doing all they can do for us at this point. But this is a long, drawn-out recovery process. I’m going to need FEMA for a long time to come to help make sure that we’re going to be able to get this done for our people and that the parish will be made whole, or as much so as we can, in the aftermath of this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Layton Ricks, who is the president of Livingston Parish in Louisiana, we thank you very much. And we certainly wish you the very best with the recovery that’s coming in the weeks and months to come.

LAYTON RICKS: Thank you, ma’am. I appreciate you.

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