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Louisiana Flood Victims Continue To Struggle With Systems, Give Thanks For Helping Hands

Eve Troeh/WWNO
Myra Engrum and her son Jeremiah in the back yard of their flooded home in Baton Rouge, late November. They hope to be back in their house by year's end.

It's been over 100 days since floodwaters rose up to the rooftops in parts of Baton Rouge, La. The so-called 1,000-year flood hit neighborhoods that had never seen such a disaster. But to some flood victims, it was all too familiar - those who moved to Baton Rouge from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina about a decade ago.

In August, WWNO's Eve Troeh met a woman hit by Katrina and this summer's flood. They recently spoke again.

There's still nowhere to sit inside Myra Engrum's flooded house. It's a construction zone. So we talk in the backyard near her citrus tree, heavy with bright orange satsumas.

"They're all ready," Engrum says, "but a friend of mine told me that if it got in contact with any of the sewer water, don't eat the fruit this year."

She says it's the best crop she's ever had, but...

"Can't eat 'em!"

Flood recovery is full of such twists. Take fixing up her house. Engrum had flood insurance. Most of her neighbors here in Baton Rouge didn't. And she found a contractor right away through her church. But the insurance process has slowed her down.

"So you fill out this paperwork, your contractor fills out the paperwork," she says. "And they do a certain amount of work, and then they send an inspector. Then they say, OK, now we'll give you a few more dollars, maybe a third or a fourth of the total. And then the process starts over again."

That stop and start makes a move-in date unclear. Engrum envies families with savings or who could afford a private loan to fix things up. Many of them are back while Engrum and her son Jeremiah are in a hotel, paid for now by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. The two have been at the hotel about two months. Her son likes the pool, of course, but they can't do things they'd normally do, like cook.

"I got a little George Foreman grill," Engrum says. "I do bread on there and I've done some fish. I've learned how to cook eggs in a microwave."

It's not ideal. Every 30 days, FEMA decides whether it will keep paying for her hotel. Twice now Engrum's waited anxiously to learn whether she and Jeremiah will have to get out the next day.

We drive to get Jeremiah from his nearby school. As Myra Engrum winds through the neighborhood, some houses are still wrecked. Others are repaired. A few have a government-issued mobile housing unit. Engrum points to a beige mobile home, bigger and different than the small white FEMA trailers after Katrina.

:That's what they look like now," she says. Then she shrugs her shoulders. "And who qualifies for it and how did they get them? It's a mystery."

We scoop up her 10-year-old son. He remembers when we last talked, at his summer camp.

Engrum goes about the normal after school routine, asking, "So how was your day today, dear? Did you have a good day?

"It was good and it was fun," the boy answers, a typical young man riding home from school. Except he notes the few trailers we see and remarks that he and his mom didn't get one.

We head back to the Engrums' house so Jeremiah can ride his bike before they return to their hotel. He circles the driveway as the sky grows a sunset, ringing his bike bell. The sound mixes with buzz saws and hammering. Up and down the street neighbors are working on their houses.

Myra Engrum shows me the rebuilding progress inside their home.

It looks like a house - albeit a totally empty one. There are walls up. There were just exposed beams last time.

"So they put the insulation back in the walls," Engrum says. "They put the primer on."

I ask how she's feeling about staying in this house, and in Baton Rouge, long-term.

"Guess I have some mixed feelings about it," she replies, "because I will always be wondering, is there going to be another flood? You know, are we going to have to start all over again?"

She has some new goals for rebuilding her life.

"I will live lighter," Engrum says, and laughs at all the things she used to buy on sale and store to use later. "I will think a little bit differently about how I even buy things. I want to work on a clutter-free life."

Myra Engrum and her son have had a lot of help from family and strangers. One day, a gift card arrived for books. Another day it was a new boy scout uniform. A bus came from Florida full of people who gutted homes and cooked for her whole neighborhood. And so, with her beautiful clear voice, she still sings.

"Oh, lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need."

It's all a lot like what she saw when her New Orleans apartment flooded after Hurricane Katrina - systems and programs frustrating to navigate, individual people ready to give.