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National

Many Still Without Housing, Months After Louisiana Floods

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There are families in Louisiana still living in temporary housing - trailers, apartments, even hotels - eight months after devastating floods hit the state. More than 140,000 houses were flooded. People rushed to hire contractors to fix them up and snatched up other places to stay. We've been periodically checking in on one flood victim, Myra Engrum. And member station WWNO Tegan Wendland brings us this update.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: This is Myra Engrum's new normal, work all day then drive through her old neighborhood in Baton Rouge, waving at neighbors who've already moved back, pick up her grandson Jeremiah from school...

MYRA ENGRUM: Hi, Jer (ph). How was school today?

JEREMIAH: It was good.

ENGRUM: Good.

WENDLAND: ...And drive back to a Holiday Inn miles away.

ENGRUM: OK. This is where we come and do homework. Close that up, baby.

WENDLAND: There's a little potted Christmas tree on the bedside table. Thanksgiving, Easter and birthdays have all been spent here in this tiny little room. Clothes burst out of the closet. Big bins of Legos are stacked against the wall. Boxes of grits and macaroni are jammed into the shelves around the TV. Cooking healthy food is hard.

ENGRUM: A friend of mine gave me a little toaster oven, so we sometimes will do, like, toast on there. And then I have a little Crock-Pot. I've made some chili in there before. I've made some beans and sausage, you know.

WENDLAND: You could write a recipe book, "Hotel Cooking."

ENGRUM: (Laughter) That's true.

WENDLAND: She laughs, but it's not easy. Small tasks take more time, like walking across the big hotel to do her laundry, washing dishes in the bathroom, driving all around town to do errands. And she did everything right. She had flood insurance. She hired contractors. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gave out a few thousand trailers for people to live in in their front yards. She wanted one but was told she didn't qualify. Last month, she had a heart attack.

ENGRUM: I think from just the stress pretty much of this whole situation.

WENDLAND: FEMA is paying for the hotel but not for much longer. The emergency housing program is set to end May 11, and Myra's house won't be finished until July. She says FEMA offered her some subsidized apartments where they could live until then.

She drives past one of them, a red brick apartment building in a rundown part of town called Mall City.

ENGRUM: This is the area. So here you have abandoned buildings. I witnessed some drug dealing.

WENDLAND: In other words, not somewhere she wants to stay with her 10-year-old grandson. There are at least 130 other families left in the same situation. Officials say it's been hard to find housing, partly because there just isn't any. Thousands moved to Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina a dozen years ago, and the rental market has been near capacity since then. After the flood last year, there just weren't many options. If she'd known it would be this hard...

ENGRUM: I'm not really sure if I would have stayed knowing what I know now.

WENDLAND: Maybe she would have moved near family in Texas or central Louisiana. When she needs a break from it all, she goes to visit her home on Acacia Street, where she talks with neighbors and checks out the renovation progress. She peeks into her front window, framed by freshly painted red shutters.

ENGRUM: Oh, good. That looks good. That's going to be a fireplace when they're done. Most of us are doing, like, the wood floors or ceramic. So I chose ceramic.

WENDLAND: In case it happens again.

ENGRUM: Yes. They're doing a good job.

WENDLAND: She checks out the yard and her flower gardens. She's happy to see things coming together. Then they pack up as Jeremiah waves goodbye to a friend.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Bye.

JEREMIAH: Bye.

WENDLAND: And for now, they head back to the hotel for another night. For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.