Louisiana floods: The water is gone, and the work begins

Story highlights

  • Before rebuilding can begin, homes must be gutted -- a task left up to residents
  • As many as 2,600 individuals or families are still living in homes needing gutting, group estimates
  • "They're going to get sick and die," retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore warns

(CNN)The stench isn't so bad anymore inside the three-bedroom house in north Baton Rouge where Rodney Davis has been living since the water receded.

Volunteers tore out the hallway carpet. They hauled fouled furniture to the curb. And in a few rooms, they removed four feet of soggy drywall, exposing the skeleton of the home's wood frame.
    But the job is far from done. Ruined walls still hang in a bathroom, the den and the kitchen. And mold threatens to creep toward the ceiling.
    "I bought a cot, and I've got one lounge chair, and I've been sitting here," Davis, a retired union pipefitter, told CNN. "It's gotten better since they got that back (section) done. I got fans going, and I got the windows open, so I don't really smell nothing real bad."
    Rodney Davis has been sleeping on a cot in his flood-ravaged north Baton Rouge home, away from mold-ridden areas of the house.
    "It's not what I would call 'ideal condition,' I'll tell you that," he said. "But it don't smell too bad up front where I'm at. That's the key thing. My main objective right now is just, get it gutted. Then I'll wait for FEMA."
    More than three weeks after catastrophic flooding devastated south Louisiana, killing 13 people and causing at least $8.7 billion in damages, FEMA reports more than 134,000 households have registered for aid and 115,000 housing inspections have been completed.
    But the critical work of gutting flooded structures so rebuilding can begin is still a daily slog. It continues even as state and federal officials work to launch temporary shelter programs, including the delivery of temporary mobile homes and rental vouchers.
    That means many people -- including the elderly and those with medical problems -- have little choice but to remain in their ruined residences. According to one local estimate, as many as 2,600 individuals or families are still living in homes that have not been gutted or treated for mold.
    The staggering figure exposes a critical gap in the government's disaster response apparatus -- one that local organizations in Louisiana have been hustling to fill.
    "The intention after a flood by FEMA is everybody clean their house out themselves, with friends and family," said retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, a Louisiana native who was at the helm of the Hurricane Katrina response and who has been working since last month's floods to connect residents with recovery resources.
    "The federal government, as good as we think they are, they're not that good," he said. "It is beyond their scope to have an individual program that could touch every person on every block."

    Nonprofits band together to help flood victims

    The lack of an automatic federal response aimed at gutting a city's worth of houses became clear within days of the flood to Broderick Bagert, lead organizer with the community group Together Baton Rouge.
    The initial operation, he said, was "decentralized, rough-scrabble, with minimal coordination."
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    "You keep looking around for the cavalry," Bagert said. "Then you're like, s***, there is no cavalry."
    So Bagert and his colleagues set about building one. They set up an online intake system, then built a database to catalog households that had requested help gutting their flooded homes.
    The group also dispatched volunteers to knock on doors at houses that didn't have a massive pile of household muck at the curb -- a sure sign that putrid detritus still lingered inside.
    The nonprofit then sent out volunteers through its "Gut Check" program to do the hot, filthy work: using sledgehammers, shovels and bare hands to scrape away every muddy, moldy remnant of the flood.
    But the manpower clearly would never have been enough, Bagert said.
    So Together Baton Rouge, in connection with other local nonprofits, is now hiring 100 local people -- many of them affected by the flood -- at $15 per hour to gut 2,000 homes over 30 days. The Baton Rouge Area Foundation is covering the start-up cost of $250,000, plus $20,000 from Together Baton Rouge; additional donations would extend the program's scope, Bagert said.

    'Neighors helping neighbors' -- but that leaves the vulnerable at risk

    Rodney Davis outside his Baton Rouge home where floodwaters reached 2 feet high.
    Without this team, Davis, who is 64 and suffers from arthritis, said he'd still be living in a house steeping in flood residue. He has applied for FEMA assistance, and an agency representative visited a week ago. "Of course," Davis added, "I ain't seen him since."
    For its part, FEMA has committed $300 million toward emergency home repairs and rental housing aid in Louisiana, spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said. The agency also assigned 400 volunteers from the FEMA Corps national service program to gut houses.
    But he acknowledged that FEMA considers the initial work of clearing out a flooded house an individual task.
    Health risks of mold

    • After flooding, lingering dampness in walls, wood, carpets and homes provide perfect environment for mold to spread, posing serious health risks.
    • Infants, children, pregnant women, seniors and people with existing respiratory conditions or immune deficiency are at higher risks for getting affected by mold.
    • Inhaling large quantities of mold can cause respiratory problems, congestion, cough and nervous system pains like headaches. Symptoms also include eye, nose, throat and skin irritations.
    • If you're allergic to mold, you may have difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
    • Recent studies suggest potential link of children getting asthma when they're exposed to mold early on.

    Sources: FEMA and CDC

    "It's neighbors helping neighbors," Lemaitre said.
    In some cases, Honore noted, residents could move into a shelter or hotel, with FEMA footing the bill. But many don't trust a system that cannot guarantee -- at least not yet -- a grant or loan that will cover the cost of rebuilding.
    As for insurance, more than 80% of damaged homes didn't carry flood coverage because they were outside the 100-year flood plain.
    Public health officials in Louisiana have issued warnings to those still dealing with flooded homes: wear gloves, a breathing mask and eye protection when gutting and clearing mold. Keep homes well ventilated as they dry out. Don't run air conditioning units that flooded. And take a break if the stifling late-summer heat and humidity become overwhelming.
    Mold most often causes sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes, with effects often worse in people who suffer from asthma, said assistant state health officer Dr. Parham Jaberi. But as with noxious substances, effects can vary widely and long-term consequences aren't well understood.
    Jaberi also warned that the full scope of the flood and its aftermath is only now setting in for many, making mental health the next front in this ongoing disaster. He advised that people take a break from jobs or recovery work, even if for just a few hours. The state also has set up a crisis counseling hotline.
    "The vulnerable population -- the elderly, the poor, the disabled -- many of them are scared to come out of their house and get it gutted because they're afraid they're not going to get back in," Honore said. "It's fear of the unknown: if they can't fill the gap between what FEMA is offering and what it costs to get back into their home.
    "Some of them, that's where they'd rather be, in their house, even with the mold in it. But they're going to get sick," he said. "They're going to get sick, and they're going to die."