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An Informal Neighborhood Flood Recovery Operation Helps People Move Forward

There was a lot of talk of what it would cost to make people WHOLE again after last summer’s devastating floods. And while bureaucrats have searched for a way to quantify a complete recovery for Louisiana residents, Jesse Hardman reports on how many flood affected families are simply going about finding their own ways forward.

Tow-truck driver Ronnie Stewart needs a golf cart to take inventory of the more than 300 cars that wound up in his backyard tow lot after historic floods. He stops at a sports car. “That Corvette was under 7, 8 feet of water," he says. "I knew the man that owned it, real good friends with him. Inch of mud in it. Motor’s flooded out.”

Six months after the waters receded in Livingston Parish, Stewart is STILL hauling flooded cars. When he checks on all these idle vehicles, he doesn’t see machines. He sees people. "That Dodge truck there, that’s a friend from Denham Springs, I knowed him real well," Stewart recalls. "He had no insurance on it. He asked me to come get it out of his way. Nothin' he could do with it."

Stewart is waiting to get these cars crushed and hauled off his lot. He gets a little money and a tax break for doing this work, but for the most part, he’s simply helping his community recover. "Everybody says you have a fortune in cars here, show me, I’d like to find it," he says, laughing.

Ronnie Stewart, who's more commonly known as Uncle Ronnie in Livingston Parish, is part of a trusted, albeit informal recovery effort in this rural part of Louisiana where 80% of houses were damaged by floods. Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy recently touched down in this part of the state to check on the more formal recovery. Cassidy brought a congressional delegation from DC with him to see where billions of federal flood recovery dollars were being spent. "It’s one thing to hear that this many months after the flood there are still people whose homes are effectively still destroyed, it’s another to see it themselves," Cassidy said after touring the area.

Fifty-eight year old Jim Thacker has seen it himself every day for the past six months from the front seat of his tow truck. He’s one of Ronnie Stewart’s drivers. He says formal recovery helps pay for debris removal and other cosmetic changes. But does that equal REAL relief? "No not really, they just don’t have that reminder now in the driveway of what happened to them," Thacker says.

Today Thacker is heading to a mobile home near Denham Springs to pick up a flood car that belongs to his wife’s best friend since grade school. Thacker says Crystal, his client, got some FEMA assistance, but things are by no means back to normal since flood waters blasted through a nearby drainage canal. “This poor girl lost everything. I just wish there was more we could do for her," Thacker says. He hitches up her white Mazda to his truck. There’s still flood water sloshing around in the headlights, and Hershey bar wrappers and styrofoam cups strewn around the inside.

As Thacker heads back to Ronnie Stewart’s tow lot, he slowly tails a dump-truck hauling flood debris. Thacker reveals that while he’s been helping folks get back on their feet, he’s been dealing with his own flood recovery. Almost 5 feet of water decimated his house and everything in it. He and his wife tried to get Federal and State assistance.

"We applied for it, we did not receive it. We were able to get food stamps. But as far as financial help, we received none," he says.

In the absence of the formal recovery system, Thacker turned to the one he knew he could count on. "I was able to stay with my best friend Ronnie Stewart," Thacker says. "He put me and my wife and her son up at his house for a month until we were able to get into our home."

Thacker’s also hoping the towing money he makes working for Stewart will help him piece his house back together. He’s still living with a concrete floor and half of his walls torn out.

This report was made possible by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As the new Coastal Reporter, Jesse Hardman will draw on 15 years of worldwide experience in radio, video and print journalism. As a radio reporter he has reported for NPR, BBC, and CBC, and for such familiar programs as Marketplace, This American Life, Latino USA, and Living on Earth. He served as a daily news reporter and news magazine producer for WBEZ in Chicago.

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