SULFUR — At 7:30 a.m. on a sunny Friday, the courtyard of WW Lewis Middle School was buzzing with the chatter of students eager to start classes after summer vacation.
It was the first day of the second school year after the destructive hurricanes of 2020, which damaged all 76 facilities in the Calcasieu Parish School District. Lewis Middle School was particularly hard hit; the school’s library, gymnasium and auditorium were taken out of service.
Two years later, work on the auditorium, a space used by both the school and community groups, has still not begun. Looming behind the bustling courtyard of students that morning, the 1,300-seat facility remained completely empty and dark. The only structures inside were towering levels of scaffolding put in place a week earlier.
“We will probably never be able to use the auditorium,” Aspen Kinney, an eighth-grader at the school, said of students in her grade. Perhaps, she said, her 7-year-old sister would benefit once she entered middle school.
The Lewis Auditorium is one of many projects across the district that have been delayed by a lack of funding for repairs. The Calcasieu Parish School Board, which estimates the district suffered at least $400 million in damage, has not received any significant reimbursement from the federal government for permanent projects, which are repairs that go beyond the immediate cleanup after disasters like Hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020.
With an insurance maximum of $40 million, the district was woefully underinsured for damage from back-to-back storms, leaving it heavily dependent on gap coverage provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. By comparison, the last highly destructive storm to hit the area, Hurricane Rita in 2005, caused just $26 million in damage, according to the district’s chief financial officer.
The struggles of the Calcasieu School District, whose largest city is Lake Charles, mirror those facing much of southwestern Louisiana, which saw a steep drop in population after the storms. Public school enrollment in the parish remains down nearly 4,000, or 12.5% of pre-storm enrollment, though this year marks a slight rebound as 28,202 students return to district campuses. .
So far, the district has spent $320 million on remediation and repairs and has only been reimbursed for a fraction of those funds. Reimbursements have started pouring in this year, with FEMA paying $100 million for remediation work so far, but funding for permanent repairs is still lacking.
“They are all stuck due to a lack of funds,” said Wilfred Bourne, the council’s chief financial officer. “It’s infuriating, frankly.”
In early July, the district received its first reimbursement, with FEMA payments for permanent projects totaling $13 million in early August, nearly two years after Laura. And the school district is not alone in its plight: Lake Charles has also not received reimbursement for permanent repairs.
FEMA acknowledged the increasing costs borne by local public agencies like the school district as a result of two hurricanes, flooding and a winter freeze that hit the area in the past two years, and said the agency continues to work with the office of the governor of the homeland. Safety and emergency preparedness “as recovery projects continue across the state.”
“Their process is broken”
School district officials hope their experience could help spur the state and federal government to rethink how disaster relief funds are disbursed. These delays have long been a source of national concern.
Bourne and his colleagues have two ongoing calls with FEMA each week, during which they discuss the pace of funding processes, which officials at recipient state agencies have described as onerous and time-consuming.
“Their process is broken,” Bourne said. “We are trying to help them fix it.”
And there have been notable changes. On August 4, FEMA raised the threshold for what the agency considers a “small project” from $131,000 to $1 million. The agency uses simplified procedures to determine reimbursements on small projects, with the aim of speeding up payments.
“We need to make it easier for candidates to request help after a disaster,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement. “This significant change means a smoother and faster process for getting federal disaster relief funds into the hands of government entities and nonprofit organizations.”
According to Bourne, FEMA has also simplified the damage validation process on major projects.
‘Getting a nosebleed’
These changes will likely benefit schools and other public entities in the state, such as those soon to enter their second year of post-Ida recovery, Bourne said.
“Everybody out there, on that end of the state, is probably going to benefit from us being the first ones out the door, with bloody noses,” he said.
School board officials are also asking the state to consider stepping in and temporarily filling the funding gap created by the delay in federal reimbursements. One potential solution proposed by district leaders would be for the state to provide the necessary funding for repairs and then be reimbursed by FEMA, allowing repairs to move forward sooner.
“If we really care about our students, there should be contingencies to make up for the fact that the federal bureaucracy won’t provide us with money in a timely manner,” Superintendent of Schools Shannon LaFargue said. “We have to be more efficient because our students are suffering, our region is suffering, our people are suffering.”
State officials have acknowledged that the reimbursement process has its challenges. It remains to be seen whether a proposal like the one made by the school board is feasible.
“Certainly there needs to be improvements in this process,” said Casey Tingle, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “Some of this may require legislative work, but we continue to have these discussions.”
District officials plan to meet with Governor John Bel Edwards on Friday to discuss the issue before the governor’s appearance at an annual luncheon for state politicians in Lake Charles.
Despite its many challenges, from COVID-19 restrictions to lagging repairs, the district has recorded some academic successes. His scores in the state school achievement assessment improved, placing him in the top 10 in the state.
“A lot of parishes have just dealt with COVID. They didn’t have to deal with what we had to do,” LaFargue said. “For our children, our staff and our teachers, to bounce back as fast as we did is a celebration for us.”
At Lewis Middle School, principal Michelle LeBlanc said she hopes this year will mark a “return to normal” – to some extent.
“It’s just a constant battle,” LeBlanc said of the rebuilding process. But, she added, students will finally be able to enjoy some of the fruits of that labor. “They will be able to participate in more activities here on campus thanks to the repairs already made.”
Those activities include school dances, which LeBlanc said she hopes will return for the first time since the pandemic began. This will be especially meaningful for eighth graders, like Kinney, whose entire middle school experience has been marred by pandemic restrictions and damaged school facilities.
“They’ve never had a school dance before,” LeBlanc said.