HAMMOND, La. -- Like tens of thousands of other victims of last month’s historic flooding, Andrew and Melanie Hickman of Hammond saw floodwater where none had ever been recorded, including inside their home.
Without flood insurance, they found themselves counting on help from the federal government through the FEMA individual assistance program.
“We knew that we were not going to get the max,” Melanie Hickman said. “We weren't expecting that. We just expected something to be able to put walls back in the room of my two babies.”
Instead, the Hickmans and their two young daughters – ages 6 months and 21 months – got nothing. In an electronic notice posted under the family’s claim, FEMA posted “denied because of insufficient damage.”
“We’ve never, ever needed the government for anything,” Melanie Hickman said. “I can understand if we had the money to put it back together, but we don’t. And the one time we need help, they say our house is livable.”
The Hickmans are not alone. More than 100,000 Louisiana households have applied for financial assistance from FEMA. And while the easy on-line registration and quick inspections have been applauded, many families have complained about minuscule awards or being denied help altogether.
FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency – grants up to $33,000 per household under the emergency assistance program. According to FEMA spokesman Carl Henderson, the agency has several criteria in considering awards: the amount of damage to a home, the number of people in the home, and whether the owners carry flood insurance. Assistance is only given for primary residences, not vacation homes or rentals.
RELATED: Those without flood insurance may qualify for grants
The Hickmans thought they were good candidates for assistance. But the denial came swiftly.
“It took them seven hours to deny us. That's it,” Melanie Hickman said. “They came that day. That night we were denied.”
A survey of the homes in Hickman’s block in the Sterling Estates subdivision, showed a wide range of awards for what appeared to be – with the naked eye – the same level of flooding and damage.
But just two houses away, an adult man and his mother received $17,000 from FEMA. Melanie Hickman's next-door neighbor, who has flood insurance, got a check for $2,500.
Melanie Hickman's sister, Amy Desaules, who lives across the street in a house without flood insurance, received $3,700. She and her boyfriend are now living in a rented camper parked in their driveway.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” Desaules said. “We can’t live in the house, but $3,700 isn’t even enough to replace our floors. It’s kind of a slap in the face.”
While Desaules believes her FEMA award is inadequate, she is baffled that she would receive more than her sister given that she has no children in the house.
“I would have rather them give us zero, than to give my nieces zero,” she said. “They're saying that their house is livable. To think of my nieces laying on the cement floor, that’s terrible. I can’t even think about that.”
The Hickman's immediately filed an appeal, but for now, they are forced to live in a spare room of her parents' home nearby.
It appears that the appeal is well underway. A second inspector showed up at the house Thursday to re-assess the damage.
Congressman Steve Scalise, R-La., is encouraging constituents who are unhappy with their FEMA rulings to contact his office. He said he brought the Hickman’s case to FEMA’s attention.
“As our community continues to recover and rebuild from the devastating flooding, my top priority is making sure that help is available to everyone who has been affected,” Scalise said. “My office is available and stands ready to help families, like Andrew and Melanie Hickman, who need help cutting through the red tape of federal agencies so they can receive the assistance they need to rebuild.”
Henderson, the FEMA spokesman, said he is still researching why the Hickmans were denied.
(© 2016 WWL)