LAKE CHARLES, La. (AP) — Stewart Buller, 54, has spent the last two months at a Lake Charles RV park, living in a rundown camper that has power, but no running water. Disabled for the last two years, he has to retrieve water from a nearby faucet, urinate in cups and defecate in buckets.
Buller said his brother gave him the camper, but he didn’t realize how bad its condition was until he went inside and saw it had been infested with rats who had chewed through the water lines. Today, it’s his only housing option, with FEMA denying an application to replace the trailer he owned on Koonce Road in Moss Bluff that Hurricane Laura destroyed nearly one year ago.
“Flies are taking over,” he said. “I can’t live here anymore; it’s just too bad.”
Buller’s disability has left him unable to work. He has a back surgery scheduled for Aug. 2, in which he will be cut open and have an existing titanium disc and pin removed and have calcium shaved off his sciatic nerve. An initial surgery in February 2019, which used a laser incision, didn’t take and only saw his condition worsen. He has no vehicle and relies on crutches to get around, but he remains largely immobile.
“I can’t come back here after my surgery and be able to keep myself clean,” Buller said. “I’m going to have bandages and everything else.”
Not being approved for FEMA assistance has left Buller frustrated.
“I need help,” he said through tears. “I did everything by the book the whole way through.”
The Salvation Army took Buller to a mega shelter in Alexandria to evacuate from Hurricane Laura. He spent two weeks there before returning to find his camper destroyed. Buller again went to the mega shelter ahead of Hurricane Delta’s landfall last October, spending two weeks in a hospital bed because of his disability.
Buller was then sent to a hotel in New Orleans for three months. When he found out his mother had died, he returned to Lake Charles. During this time, all of his progress to secure Section 8 housing in New Orleans went away, he said.
“I had all my paperwork going through; I had been approved for Section 8,” he said. “Because I checked out and came back down here, it’s like I wasn’t even in their system anymore.”
Buller said he has fought with FEMA to get his destroyed camper replaced — making three trips on a bus from New Orleans to Lake Charles to provide the necessary paperwork. He said he lost the bill of sale on his Moss Bluff camper after Hurricane Laura, but provided proof of residency and ownership multiple times. He said FEMA officials could not get in touch with the person who sold Buller the camper and the person he was renting the land where the camper was located.
Buller said he last spoke to a FEMA official two months earlier at the Lake Charles Civic Center.
“A few days later, I received a letter saying I got denied,” he said. “I’ve asked for no money. I’ve asked for housing.”
Tiana Suber, FEMA spokeswoman, said the agency cannot comment on specific cases. However, residents who applied for FEMA assistance from Hurricanes Laura and Delta can still receive help, even though the registration deadlines have already passed.
“We know people are frustrated, exasperated and tired,” she said. “We want to make sure people are getting the help that is needed.”
Suber said residents who registered with FEMA can write an appeal letter that includes documents supporting their claim. They can also call the agency’s hotline at 800-621-3362 or visit disasterassistance.gov.
Residents can also visit the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center at Washington-Marion Magnet High School, 2802 Pineview St. The center is open from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Suber said the center was opened to help residents impacted by the May 17 flooding. However, officials can also help residents needing assistance with recovery from Hurricanes Laura and Delta.
The center is open through July 30. Suber said 1,500 residents have visited the center since it opened June 16.
Buller said he is unable to stay in shelters because he has a dog. He’s had no luck finding low-income housing and lacks transportation needed to secure a pet-friendly rent home.
Buller said he and his girlfriend, Elizabeth — who is staying at a volunteer shelter in Lafayette — are considering leaving Lake Charles after his back surgery.
“We’re going to buy a car and we’re just going to go,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m not going to come back, (but) we need some time.”