From Tents to Trailers

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Scott Maronge stepped into his new camper trailer which has been the first stable roof over his head in months. His home being a tent, he barely had room to get in and out with his pup, Lafitte. Piled up directly in front of his temporary home was water and some supplies strewn across a cement slab. Not only was his tent small for a grown man and his large dog, but Scott also is on disability due to an accident years ago, so it was tough on his body to get in and out of his temporary shelter.

Before he was able to secure the tent, he was living out of his truck in a Walmart parking lot. “I never hit rock bottom like this,” he tearfully stated. He described what it was like to ride out the storm in a metal building that he had to crawl in the window to get into because his trailer tumbled away during the storm. Driving up to Scott’s tent, you can see pieces of what used to be someone’s home on the bank of a pond, a trailer you can see through due to the walls being blown out, blue tarp roofs, and random items in foreign areas that were once a part of someone’s home. 

This was just one delivery of an initiative that has taken storm with Terrebonne Economic Development (TEDA) and various other community organizations. The housing initiative started with a much-needed conversation when the housing crises in the hardest-hit areas were an apparent issue. Dr. Micheal Garcia, who is the chairman of the TEDA board of directors and the chairmen of the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce, started having a conversation with Mitch Marmande and Reggie Dupre. They realized that they all had different recovery efforts, but they had the same goal. They approached TEDA to coordinate a meeting with the community’s business organizations in Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes to begin a dialog around a more coordinated recovery than what has been in place Federally and State-wise. This dialog allowed them to better understand what was needed in local communities based on what the different organizations were hearing on the ground in their various capacities. Not only were they able to expand the initiative through these various efforts, but they were able to identify and make sure that they weren’t duplicating efforts or services.

About two and a half weeks after Ida left a trail of destruction, the group of concerned organization leaders had a kickoff meeting where Matt Rookard said the conversation never pivoted away from housing issues. “You know it’s kind of remarkable from a group of business organizations given how many businesses are damaged, but the crux of it was, you don’t have an economy unless you have houses,” he said. They realized in order to get our communities back to somewhat normal, they had to provide a simple necessity of shelter. If people can’t live in our community, they can’t work, they can’t start rebuilding, and all of the fundamental issues involve stable housing situations, so it was almost a no-brainer.

That’s when Matt said they left that first meeting knowing they would put together a project around housing to try to help where they could. They felt they might have access to some private sector funding as well, so they went to work figuring out what the housing program would look like. He said they had concepts that were pretty close to a bulk-housing site, with workforce-style units that they were going to make available, but every concept they came up with had some array of issues. They started writing grants quickly while reaching out to community organizations that also play an integral role in the program: the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce, Lafourche Chamber of Commerce, Thibodaux Chamber of Commerce,

South Louisiana Economic Council, South Central Industrial Association, and Bayou Industrial Group. The program kicked off Tuesday, November 3, and has been nonstop since then.

The program has enhanced the efforts of community nonprofits that have been working on the ground to provide housing assistance to impacted residents of Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes. The partnering organizations also help the initiative move forward by identifying families who require assistance. Those partners include the Hache Grant Association, the Helio Foundation, the United Houma Nation, the InterTribal Council, the Pointe–aux–Chien Tribal Council, Catholic Charities Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, Terrebonne Parish NAACP, and Louisiana Shrimp Industry Coalition. The first phase raised over a million dollars to jump-start the program including the Bayou Community Foundation  ($500,000), Chevron ($100,000), Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation ($250,000), Chandamuri Foundation ($100,000), and BHP ($500,000).

These generous donations and teamwork of everyone involved allowed the program to move at a slightly faster pace than the government was able to move at. The program includes private dollars which creates flexibility to the whole process which has provided 18 trailers so far and they are being deployed as soon as they can get them purchased. “We’re not trying to replace FEMA or the state program,” said Matt, “I think the scale is just astronomical and we’re not going to be able to fulfill all of those needs, but right now I think we can probably buy and deliver around 70 trailers…and we’re kind of thinking this as a Phase I in recovery to get people a stable roof over their heads and out of tents as quickly as we can.” He said they can assist Terrebonne, Lafourche, and Grand Isle pretty quickly due to the credibility of the community organizations that are involved.

Matt described the program as one of the most Louisiana ways of doing recovery. Get some funding, go buy a trailer, hook it to a truck, and go drive it down to give to those in need. “Let’s not get too complicated or get too fussy about things. Let’s literally just do it. So that’s what we’ve been doing,” he said.

He explained that since the storm, everyone is doing what they can, but the problem is there are so many regulations when it comes to housing issues. There are federal laws when it comes to donating trailers outright, and if you do, technically it becomes FEMA property. That means they have to do the hook-ups, get licensed and insured contractors, get them inspected, get them cleaned due to COVID regulations. Since the housing initiative with TEDA is provided by private sector monies, they don’t have to abide by any of those regulations, which in turn means a quicker process. “We’re getting approval to get to drop off the trailers where they are, and we’re working on this culture that we’re all to celebrate where people are being self-reliant to be able to give them opportunities and hand-ups so they’ll be able to figure it out on their own…so far we haven’t had any issues with that,” Matt said. This process has evidently worked and was clearly appreciated through Scott’s reaction.

“We’re not going to solve this problem by looking backward, that’s my approach, let’s move forward and look at what we can do, and if we do two a day, that’s two more families, if we do three, that’s three more families a day. Hopefully, at the end of this thing, we’ll be able to help 300-400 people get out of tents and get into a stable housing situation and leave them an asset that hopefully can help once they get out of the travel trailer. They can sell it, or use it as a family asset and hopefully have something that can help kick off their recovery process. We’re excited about it.”