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‘Where’s the help?’: Family who lost everything trying to recover despite denial for FEMA assistance

LAPLACE — Cynthia and Moses Banga spent an hour on the phone with an agent to complete their FEMA application for $500 in assistance that’s being granted to those impacted by Hurricane Ida.

A day later, they were informed they were denied without further explanation.

Like thousands others in St. John the Baptist Parish, the Bangas, who live on the 2900 block of Yorktowne Drive, lost essentially everything after Ida ravaged the Gulf Coast exactly 16 years after Hurricane Katrina’s arrival. It’s the first time the couple, along with their three children aged 6, 3 and 1, have experienced a hurricane, and it’s a home they purchased after moving from New Orleans to LaPlace in 2019. Before New Orleans, the couple lived in Maryland. Cynthia is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, while Moses is from Cameroon.

Days after the hurricane, the family returned to a home they hardly recognized.

“We were kind of prepared to see the house a mess,” Cynthia Banga said. “But what we found was worse than what we expected to see. We lost way more than we thought we would have lost. That’s really emotional. It takes a toll on you.”

She thanks God her loved ones were not injured or hurt during the storm. After calling multiple times to obtain some help gutting their home, they decided to just do it themselves. But it’s hard to keep it together when the family of five has resorted to sleeping in their vehicles at night after only some folded clothes survived the storm.

“Since we’ve been here since Sunday, we’ve just been living out of our car,” Cynthia Banga said. “Coming to shower in the house, do some work, shower and go back to the cars.”

The $500 from FEMA would have helped the family book a hotel or put down a payment for a contractor. They’re thankful for a contractor who’s taking a risk to help them while they make sense of disaster assistance. The family is comfortable, but coming out of pocket is a challenge, especially with young children. They have both homeowners and flood insurance. But especially while navigating the aftermath of a hurricane for the first time, it’s unclear how much insurance will replace.

Cynthina Banga said when she called Tuesday to ask why she was denied the money many others are receiving, she was told to “deal with your insurance first,” and sent the correspondence to FEMA, which will “take it from there.” The couple is awaiting an estimate from their insurance company, which anticipates a quote anywhere from three days to a week or longer.

“So fingers crossed,” she added.

Both Cynthia and Moses say the hospitality and quiet country living are among the reasons they were excited to move to Louisiana. But while it’s a discussion she and Moses will confront soon, she says Hurricane Ida might have been “one too many.”

“When I found out that my husband had the business deal and we were going to move here, I was super excited,” Cynthia Banga said. “The food, all the culture of New Orleans really made me excited. But after experiencing this, I still love the people and the warmth but I don’t want to go through this again.”