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Q&A With Louisiana Lawmaker Tanner Magee On The Post-Ida Housing Crisis In Bayou, River Parishes

Jayce Marcel in a makeshift tent constructed in front of his damaged mobile home in the Ashland South community between Houma and Dulac.
Richard A. Webster
Jayce Marcel in a makeshift tent constructed in front of his damaged mobile home in the Ashland South community between Houma and Dulac.

Many areas of South Louisiana — particularly in the bayou communities and river parishes — are still facing severe challenges in the aftermath of hurricane Ida. On Friday, state lawmaker Tanner Magee, a Republican representative from Houma, joined Louisiana Considered to talk about the dire need for resources right now.

Here’s that conversation with co-hosts Patrick Madden and Stephanie Grace.

First of all, Representative, how are you and your constituents holding up right now?

You know, we're doing the best we can under some really difficult circumstances. This area, if it's anything, it's resilient. It's tough. I was talking to some nonprofit friends of mine who said they're trying to give out assistance to people who are refusing it, even though their houses are destroyed, and they're living in rubble. That's the kind of people they are and they're tacking up making makeshift shelters right now — it's been kind of hard to watch, but you’re also seeing some really resilient people. We're extremely thankful for the weather today and yesterday, I mean, it couldn't have come at a better time. I was really starting to get concerned with the heat and the kind of conditions people were in. But today — the last few days — have been a much needed relief. But we're making it, to answer your question.

I know the needs are just enormous and very varied. But what's on the top of your list?

Temporary housing is the thing that we need most in my conversations with the parish and state and federal officials. The parish has submitted a plan to FEMA. The state has signed off on the plan. They're waiting on a response from FEMA, whether they think the plan is feasible or not. And as of last Friday, a week ago, they said we will be ... going at least 30 days before we received our first mobile housing unit, which is entirely too long if you're coming down here and seeing these kind of conditions. I was having a conversation with the Speaker of the House in Louisiana (Clay Schexnayder) yesterday, and he drove by. “Sorry,” he goes, and he said, “I'm trying to tell everybody.” Unless you see it, you really can't understand how devastated the area truly is. And I think people assume it's more livable than it is. And he goes, “I'm showing pictures to my neighbors when they're complaining to me about not having their power rolling” and say, “Well, this is what the rest of the state's going through right now.” I know that people in Louisiana, they care and they want to help. It's just making them understand what's really going on.

Can you just sort of paint a picture of what you're seeing right now when you drive around? You talked about how people are making these makeshift tents, but describe what you're seeing.

Yeah, so the further south you go, obviously the devastation gets worse. If you're in Houma proper, it's bad, but you know, people can live in these conditions, the majority of them. But the further south you go, the more desperate the situation becomes. And there's a woman who had a 3-year-old baby, and they were living in a Walmart tent next to what used to be their trailer. They had been denied by FEMA for immediate assistance. But it's not just her. It's not the one incident. You drive around long enough, and you'll see 10, 15, 20 people drying out their clothes on clothes lines, because they don't have a roof over their shelter or enough to keep their clothes dry when it's raining. So after every rain, you're seeing clotheslines go up with clothes being dried out. It's been tough to be honest with you.

Have you been able to get to the bottom of why people who are seemingly eligible and in need are being denied?

No, it's a frustration. You get stuck in these wheels of it's this person and that person, and you're going around in a circle when you're trying to figure out who is the one person I can talk to who can give me a definitive answer on what is going on. And it's hard to come up with it. It's just devastating. You're seeing units after units, house after house, with people tacking up some of the rubble to make a shelter out of what they have there.

And then there's an eviction crisis going on.

Yes. The major apartment complexes made the decision early on that all of their properties were total losses and basically said, “You have to get out.” FEMA's preference is for some sort of hotel situation for displaced residents. There's nothing around. You're going towards Amelia, which is not close, and that's being used up by workers and first responders. New Orleans is being used by first responders. You're lucky if you can get a hotel in Lafayette for somebody at this point, which is two hours away from where you live and work. I had a conversation with a woman a couple days ago, and she said, “I'm from Mississippi. My whole family is from Mississippi. I love it in Houma. I want to stay here, but I don't have daycare. I don't have a place to live, I don't have a place to stay, I have a job and nothing else. And eventually, I'm going to have to go back to Mississippi and give up my job and my life that I've built here. And I'm never coming back.”

To give folks listening the scope of the problem, we're talking about 200,000 people living in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes right? And that's just two parishes. So this is an enormous amount of people that are in this crisis situation right now.

Yes, absolutely. And look, if you were one of the lucky ones who can live in your house, you're having a whole family live with you and maybe four families living with you right now — all the people who have houses here have absorbed all the people they can absorb. It's a huge displacement of people. This is an area that is probably, on the state level, not realizing how many people actually truly live here. And they work here. There's a lot of jobs. There's a lot of industry here — oil and gas, seafood. All of that is a major contributor in both Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.

Longer term, (we know there’s an) immediate need for housing — that makes a lot of sense. What about the kind of environmental exposure of your area and the fact that it's outside the federal levees — parts of it anyway? And what do you need long term out of the government here?

Thank you, Stephanie. I really appreciate that question, and it's something I was thinking about last night. New Orleans got a $15 billion levee system after Katrina. We did not get that levee system. We asked for it, but we didn't get it. We've paid and we've taxed ourselves and built a billion dollars worth of levees around us at a local level. We need the federal government to step up and pay for the Morganza to the Gulf federal system. What we built isn't up to federal standards. It's just not high enough. It's not strong enough. it needs to be built up. Right now you're seeing all of south Louisiana, from Calcasieu to Plaquemines, is pretty much distressed right now because of storms, and I think we can all agree at this point that storms are a part of our lives going forward. If we're going to make that admission, we need to make the secondary commitment to fulfill building out the structures that we need to be able to live here and work here. I'm frustrated with both sides on this issue. I don't think this should be something that we politicize. Hurricane recovery, any kind of recovery, should be nonpartisan, and we shouldn't tie it to things. We shouldn't leverage things. I'm not blaming either party here — I'm blaming everyone. Give us the money that we need and resources. I would say the same thing for something in California for a wildfire. We all deserve the same treatment on that front.

Patrick Madden joined WWNO in 2019 as its first-ever Regional News Director, overseeing news reporting at WWNO, as well as our partner station WRKF Baton Rouge. Madden also serves as one of the hosts of Louisiana Considered, and co-hosts Friday's Politics Roundtable on Louisiana Considered with Stephanie Grace, columnist for The Times-Picayune | The Advocate.

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