Every time it rains, Ollie Williams gets the boats ready. She keeps a small fiberglass canoe tied to the bottom of her front steps, a metal flatboat tied to the side of the house, paddles and life jackets at the ready.
Williams and her husband, Daniel, already raised their double-wide trailer up on wooden stilts, 13 feet in the air, so the inside stays dry. But when it rains, the yard can fill quickly with several feet of water, lifting the canoe up the tall steps out front.
If the storm is bad enough, the family grabs go-bags full of documents and photos and paddles to higher ground, where they’ve hopefully remembered to move the cars beforehand. Then they call family or friends for help.
“This is where we wanted to be forever,” says Ollie Williams. The couple grew up here, near Slidell, east of New Orleans, and they say flooding didn’t use to be this bad. “We wanted to build our home with our family, have memories.”
But now she’s fed up and thinks her family should move to a safer place.
For thousands of households where flooding is only expected to get worse, the state of Louisiana agrees. The state has even crafted a plan to buy out the most vulnerable homes along the coast, many of which are occupied by elderly and poor residents who stayed after Hurricane Katrina. But officials say there is no money to put that plan into action.
Louisiana is far from the only place struggling to cope with increased flooding and sea level rise, problems scientists say will only grow worse as the climate continues to warm. Hurricane Harvey’s record rainfall in Houston last summer spurred calls to expand a home buyout program, but funding is an issue.
After Superstorm Sandy, New York offered a large-scale buyout program in hard-hit Staten Island, but some residents were reluctant to accept. For a decade, Alaska has been seeking help to relocate coastal communities where thawing permafrost and strong storms are severely eroding the land. And the beach town of Del Mar, Calif., recently dropped a proposal to tear down homes in a “managed retreat” from sea level rise, after residents worried that even considering the option would hurt their property values.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency encourages communities to make themselves more resilient to flooding, offering lower flood insurance rates in return. But the agency is struggling to update its flood maps, which generally don’t take sea level rise into account. That has led Annapolis, Md., to start creating its own maps so property owners can know whether they’re at risk.
Louisiana is losing land faster than just about anywhere else in the world. Since the 1930s, nearly 2,000 square miles — a land mass about the size of Delaware — have washed away into the Gulf of Mexico. The reasons include sinking land, rising sea levels, damage from the dredging of canals by oil companies and the brutal impact of storm surges and hurricanes. Coastal marshes act as a buffer for storms, so the less land there is, the bigger the threat to residents.
For a decade, the state has been working to build up its coast, re-creating barrier islands and planting new marshes. It created a coastal agency and a Coastal Master Plan, updated every five years. But in its latest plan, the 2017 Coastal Master Plan, officials admit they can’t save all the land. They say people will have to move.
“I think it’s important to note that this is really the first time we’ve had this level of discussion about this sensitive of a topic,” says Bren Haase, a planner with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
When the last plan simply mentioned the possibility of buyouts, the agency head at the time, now-Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., says there were some “very upset people literally threatening us with our lives.”
In its most recent report, the agency worked with the Rand Corp. and the state’s new Water Institute of the Gulf to model the most vulnerable areas. Using data on elevation, sea level rise and storm surge, the CPRA calculates that 23,000 buildings near the coast would flood 3-12 feet during a hundred-year storm. (That’s a storm with a 1 percent chance of happening any given year). The report says such homeowners should elevate their houses.
On paper only
The agency says 2,400 households could flood more than 12 feet during a major storm, and it lays out a detailed program to buy them out. Under it, the state would pay fair market value for the homes, demolish them, then pay for new houses farther north. But the buyout program is on paper only. Planner Haase says it would cost $1.2 billion, money the state does not have.
Louisiana does have billions of dollars to restore its coast. That’s mostly from a settlement with BP after its devastating oil spill in 2010. Officials also expect millions of dollars annually from the sale of oil and gas leases in the Gulf. But Haase says most of these funds are restricted and cannot be used to buy people’s homes and move them.
That is why the state of Louisiana has not publicly identified where these buyouts would occur.
“To go to an individual homeowner and say, ‘This is what needs to happen, you know, in this particular location, might actually be irresponsible at this point,” Haase says.
In fact, Haase says he does not have a list of eligible houses.
“Always on edge”
Reveal used the state’s data to map those areas, which led me to a fishing community along the bayou in lower Terrebonne Parish, about 70 miles southwest of New Orleans. That’s where I met shrimper Malcolm LaCoste.
“During hurricane season, we’re always on edge,” LaCoste says. He’s in his 50s and says he has watched the marshes disappear. He has also watched families move away after every hurricane. His neighborhood, Bayou Dularge, is unprotected by the state’s big restoration projects. A 100-mile-long levee is being constructed nearby to protect people from storm surge and flooding, but this area is outside the levee.
LaCoste docks his blue and white shrimping boat right next to his single-story brown house, on a shallow bayou that serves as a Main Street.
When storms come, LaCoste and his wife, Angela, lift everything they can up off the floor. The house has flooded so many times they changed from carpet to tiles, so they can just wipe off the mud. If a storm is really bad, they’ll load up the truck with their best furniture and drive north, to their daughter’s place.
LaCoste had no idea he was in the state’s new buyout zone. He says he and his wife can’t afford to up and move on their own. But would they if the state made an offer?
“I’d seriously consider it,” he says. “It’s not going to get any better. The marsh isn’t coming back.”
Demographers say they see a retreat from parishes, or counties, all along Louisiana’s coast. “And we found that the people who remain in the most vulnerable areas are disproportionately elderly and poor,” says Allison Plyer with the New Orleans Data Center.
After Hurricane Katrina, she says nearly 40 percent of the people in some places moved away and never came back. For those left behind, there are fewer resources, like grocery stores, schools and post offices. “It’s a very big problem for those folks,” says Plyer. The next time a storm hits, she says, “they don’t have the neighbors that can help them.”
On their own
In 2013, President Barack Obama ordered federal agencies to work together and prepare for climate-related impacts, including sea level rise. In 2016, the administration awarded $48 million to help relocate the tiny coastal community of Isle de Jean Charles, La. But there are no plans to fund future relocations, and President Trump has rescinded the order on preparing for climate change.
FEMA buys out homes, but only after a disaster. There’s no strategy, or money, to help people prepare for a situation that is gradually getting worse.
“I don’t think the federal government’s doing enough,” says Rep. Graves. “We are going to spend [the money] now or we are going to spend it later. It’s going to end up being much more expensive if we do the latter.”
For now, people in Louisiana’s coastal flood zones must cope on their own, or leave if they can. Ollie Williams, the woman in an elevated trailer with boats at the ready, drives me around her neighborhood and points out empty lots of marshy woods. Old driveways lead to dense underbrush. “This used to be nothing but houses,” she says. “It’s horrible. No friends back here anymore.”
Williams is desperate to move but has no money for it. The family lives off her husband’s disability check, while she works to get her hairdresser’s license. They don’t think they could sell the house for much because of the flooding.
They say they’d happily take a state buyout. But it turns out they’re not eligible. They’re just outside the targeted zone, where the flooding is not deemed bad enough.
Williams believes it’s only a matter of time before their house gets hit by a big storm. That scares her. But it also gives her a strange sense of hope. Hope that if that happens, they might get enough federal disaster money to finally move someplace safer.