The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s regional administrator for the southwest region on Tuesday praised the Jindal administration’s handling of Hurricane Isaac-related food stamps.
Bill Ludwig said the administration made improvements after computer glitches and cramped space led to long lines in sweltering temperatures following hurricanes Gustav and Ike. “The state learned. They’ve done a good job,” Ludwig said.
He said the heavy crowds that turned up at sites in the New Orleans area earlier this month were adequately handled and stemmed not from any Jindal administration missteps but from the breadth of Isaac’s impact.
After flying into Louisiana on Monday to watch the disaster food stamp process unfold in Baton Rouge, Ludwig returns to Dallas on Wednesday. Earlier this month, he spent a week in New Orleans, one of the first areas in which residents qualified for the federal government’s help with groceries following Isaac.
Disaster food stamps benefit low-to-moderate-income households.
They are designed to help people who do not receive regular food stamps. For a family of four, the total adjusted gross monthly income generally cannot exceed $2,449 in order for disaster food stamps to be awarded.
People leaving a former Sam’s on Airline Highway on Tuesday after applying for disaster food stamps had the same reason for being there. Power outages across Baton Rouge caused food to spoil in refrigerators and freezers.
Hotel worker Nelly Diaz, 39, said the approval she received will help her pay the bills.
“I pay for maybe one month my food,” she said, describing how far the benefits will stretch.
Julian Denis, 28, said the application process took her less than 30 minutes.
She plans to use her disaster food stamps to buy groceries for herself and her two daughters after dumping more than $100 in spoiled food into the garbage can.
“I get to go shopping now,” Denis said.
Ludwig said the disaster food stamp process should wrap up Friday after issuing more than $100 million in benefits.
On Monday, he said, sites in East Baton Rouge Parish approved $1.8 million in disaster food stamps.
“It’s to help low-income people get back on the road to having food and security and lessening the impact of the storm,” he said.
Ludwig said the program also helps grocery stores that closed their doors during the storm by giving people money to spend.
Four years ago, an outpouring of people seeking the federal government’s help after widespread power outages in Baton Rouge overwhelmed the state Department of Children and Family Services, then called the state Department of Social Services. Some applicants showed up for benefits only to be told to return the next day.
Others waited for hours in the sun.
State Social Services Secretary Ann Silverberg Williamson resigned after Gov. Bobby Jindal publicly criticized her agency’s handling of storm-related food stamps and shelters.
Ludwig said he witnessed what went wrong in the aftermath of hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
He said the problems with the disaster food stamps stemmed from the state’s computer system crashing and the state trying to use local offices for huge crowds.
Earlier this month, enormous crowds were reported at disaster food stamp sites in New Orleans, Westwego, Slidell and Gonzales. A news photograph showed the line snaking around a parking lot of one facility. Once again, people reportedly were turned away.
Ludwig said the news reports did not tell the entire story.
He said lines are inevitable when 100,000 people are deemed possibly eligible for a disaster program. He said the state handled the crowds by handing out bottled water, calling in hundreds of state workers and reserving cavernous space such as former big box stores and arenas to get people out of the sun.
Ludwig said it takes time to check identification cards to ensure that people are who they say they are.
“The reality is you’re going to have lines, especially right after a storm,” he said.
Problems did arise, Ludwig said, when the state lifted the sorting process that only allowed people to come on the days reserved for the beginning letter of their last names.
He said more people showed up than expected, but the Jindal administration responded quickly by going back to the alphabetic sorting process.
“The key is to organize,” Ludwig said, adding that he is pleased enough to return home to Texas.