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Hurricane Ida survivors are still facing a difficult road ahead, nearly six weeks after it battered Louisiana as a Category 4 storm. And in Lake Charles, Louisiana, thousands are still waiting for relief from a string of natural disasters that began more than a year ago. Some say it shows the climate change's disproportionate toll on low-income communities. Community reporter Roby Chavez reports.
It's been nearly six weeks since Hurricane Ida battered Louisiana as a Category 4 storm. And survivors there are still facing a difficult road ahead.
In Lake Charles, Louisiana, thousands are still waiting for relief from a string of natural disasters that began more than a year ago, long before Ida. Some say it shows the inequality of climate change and the disproportionate toll it can take on low-income communities.
Our community correspondent, Roby Chavez, has our story. It's part of our coverage of Race Matters.
The wind blew all this?
Romante Lewis, Lousiana:
All of this.
This House on the north side of Lake Charles has been in Romante Lewis' family for generations. So, when Hurricane Laura ripped through here in August 2020 as one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall in Louisiana, the aftermath was devastating.
Do you think that you will have to gut this or rebuild it or tear it apart?
I just really want to gut it, keep the frame and just gut it, and keep it how it was, how I remember it as a kid.
After 13 months, Lewis is still living in a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. He's seen politicians visit Lake Charles, but, in neighborhoods like his, he says little has changed.
It just feel like a spit in the face, honestly. Like, why you came if you wasn't going to help us? What was your purpose? Just to show your face and say, oh, yes, we came and we helped out? No, you just came, you seen it, and you left. And it's, you know…
Stays the same.
Yes, it's been over a year, and they still got houses like this.
Six weeks after Laura hit, Hurricane Delta made landfall just 12 miles to the east. It left billions of dollars in damage. Then, in February, a rare winter storm burst pipes and knocked out power for thousands.
And in May, a pounding rainstorm led to major flooding in the city.
A lot of folks will mention Lake Charles as the poster child for climate change. Do you feel that that fits you?
Nic Hunter, Mayor of Lake Charles, Louisiana: What has happened to us over the last year certainly must be more than just a string of bad luck.
Nic Hunter is the Republican mayor of Lake Charles. He spent the last year pleading for more federal disaster aid, some of which did pass last week as part of the government funding bill.
We haven't seen that same level of concern for people within our community that we have seen our federal government show to people within other communities.
That's been a very tough pill to swallow. There's a lot of people who were vulnerable before Hurricane Laura who are today still 10 times as vulnerable.
Experts say global warming will likely increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, but the impacts will be uneven.
The Environmental Protection Agency has said that African-Americans and those with low income will bear the brunt of climate change. Nearly 50 percent of the residents of Lake Charles are African American, and the poverty rate hovers at 23 percent. That's twice the national average.
I hate to say they don't care about us, but, I mean, you see, they ain't come to fix our stuff.
Robert Bullard is a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston. He's been called the father of environmental justice.
Robert Bullard, Texas Southern University:
Just because you live physically on the other on the wrong side of the tracks, on the wrong side of the levee, on the wrong side of the river doesn't mean somehow that you should receive less protection.
Bullard says the communities of color that faced housing discrimination a century ago now live in areas that are more prone to flooding, urban heat islands, and pollution.
This is not theory. They are on the front line of climate change. They are at ground zero. And if you look at FEMA's recovery dollars, where they go, money follows money, money follows power, money follows whites. And communities of color generally are further marginalized after storm after storm after storm.
FEMA says it's provided more than a billion dollars in aid for all the storms in Southwest Louisiana. The agency also says it has taken steps to improve the equity of its responses, easing requirements for proof of homeownership and using data on things like poverty, housing and transportation access to better place disaster recovery centers.
Tony Robinson is the administrator for FEMA's Region 6, which includes Louisiana.
Tony Robinson, Federal Emergency Management Agency:
Our focus is really on helping survivors, meeting survivors where they are and providing our services in an equitable manner for all survivors.
We have made progress. We still have work to do. We're going to continue to work that.
But for many residents here, the inequities go well beyond FEMA's response.
Trameka Rankins has lived for 20 years in a neighborhood hard hit by the recent disasters. Greinwich Terrace is a low-lying, largely Black neighborhood in Lake Charles. It sits next to a waterway called a coulee.
And Rankins says, nearly every time there's heavy rain, the area floods.
Tell me what your house has been through.
Trameka Rankins, Lousiana:
I would say I have been hell on earth.
Rankins' house flooded during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. It sustained structural damage after Laura. But then came Hurricane Delta.
I was actually in my home when the water came in, it literally knocked the shoes off my feet. I'm 6'1". The water was over my knees halfway up to my hip area.
That did something psychologically. That was a break. That was like, OK, that's it.
She rebuilt her house after Delta, only to have it flood again during the storm in May.
Everything you just put in there, things going to the road with tags on it. You have to replace everything again. You have to gut the houses again. You have to take up all the flooring. You have to take out all the furniture, all your clothing, everything times three within the past year-and-a-half.
Rankins has repeatedly contacted local officials for assistance. She can't help but wonder about the role of race in her community's struggles.
You feel like you're being shortchanged as a community with low- to middle-income African-American. They're not paying attention to you.
It's not a pay attention to.
Rankins is now in the process of accepting a buyout for her house. The state has set aside $30 million to move some of the residents out of the terrace.
Even my 2-year-old comes and cries to me and say: "Mama, please tell the rain, rain, go away. Please stop the rain. I don't like the thunder. I don't like the rain. It's going to make the house messy again," at 2.
That's his perception of living in this house. That's the only reason why the buyout makes sense to me, because of my 2-year-old grandson.
If he wasn't here, I would sit here, fight, do this, do that. But he's part of my world. He's my everything. I want to make sure that he is OK.
Mayor Nic Hunter says he recognizes the issue of environmental racism in his city.
I see it as something that exists, though I do believe progress has been made. I still think that there is progress yet to be made.
Environmental justice professor Robert Bullard says the nation must make progress on its approach to disaster recovery.
The strategy that FEMA and the federal government follows in terms of where the money goes is using cost-benefit analysis. We have to use additional metrics, low-income status, lack of health insurance, whether or not the community has flooded repeatedly.
That's an index. You can put all that together and come up with this measure. You can take that measure and add it to cost-benefit analysis, and you will start to track more of the resources, money following need.
For now, Romante Lewis finds himself waiting, along with the roughly 4,000 residents still displaced here.
How do you figure out what to do next?
That's the question right there. What do I do next? Who do I call? I don't know.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Roby Chavez in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
So important to go back to these places, as Roby has done in Lake Charles.
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Roby Chavez is a Communities Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour out of New Orleans. @RobyChavez_504
Sam Lane is reporter/producer in PBS NewsHour's segment unit.
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