How Frequent Floods May Uproot Whole Neighborhoods
This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story originally appeared on WWNO in New Orleans as part of the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership. You can learn more about severe repetitive loss at WWNO.
Around the country, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to buy back individual homes from people who have flooded repeatedly. But buying out a whole neighborhood is uncommon. Louisiana’s 2016 flood seems to be changing that for two communities. In Pointe Coupee and Ascension Parishes, a buyout program first used in neighborhoods after Superstorm Sandy may offer a new option to homeowners who have lived with escalating risk for decades.
The water sounds like a roar, like thunder. A cannon boom. All through the Pecan Acres subdivision of Pointe Coupee Parish, people were in bed—last year, early in the morning of Aug. 12—when the flood came. Including Ethel Stewart.
“Oh, it came, it was rushing about 4 o’clock,” Stewart says now. “They blew a horn for us to get out.”
Stewart’s house is right next to a drainage canal. For more than 46 years, she raised two kids on Pecan Drive; just since they’ve grown up, her neighborhood has flooded at least 17 times. So the horn, the waters: it’s a bit of a routine.
“We wasn’t worried about the sound, we was just trying to get out,” Stewart says. “They say get out, we got out.” She nods at the fortifications still sagging between her house and the nearby canal. “Those sandbags don’t even do no justice. The water comes right straight through it.”
Around the same time, at the other end of the street, 63-year-old Margaret Williams woke up to water rushing into her low, wood house.
“It scared me and scared my daughter too,” Williams says.
Flooding does, she says. Every time. This was one of the bad ones.
“Plenty of water. It was way up there. All the way up to the top, ’bout right long your neck,” Williams says, slapping her hand a little above our heads. “I got wet.”
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Williams’ 39-year-old daughter Kalisha DeRozan says the flood took the family’s new TV—and left behind some visitors.
“When all the water gets out of this house, you see little tiny fish frogs and little worms up in that house,” says DeRozan.
Tall grass shot up around houses for months while people were gone, as it will. It gave snakes a nest. So DeRozan says another sound lets you know when people return.
“Now when the snakes come, all you hear is shotguns back here,” she says.
The roar that begins it, the gunshots that end it: flood is an old ritual for these low-income black and elderly folks. Even so, as Ethel Stewart says, it’s changing.
I ask her, when you got here, did it flood like this? “No.”
It’s gotten worse? “Yes.”
Government’s approach to chronic flooding is changing, too. Officials in Point Coupee and Ascension Parishes are applying for federal grants to buy out dozens of homes in repeat flood areas. The state supports the effort, says Pat Forbes, with Louisiana’s Office of Community Development.
“Being more resilient and better able to absorb the shocks of future disasters, in some cases, means not rebuilding where we have built in the past,” says Forbes.
Pecan Acres has been called Flood City since the 1970s. It was built on low ground: a wetlands that was once a parish dumpsite. A little southeast of Baton Rouge, the town of Gonzales has a similar problem.
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“The Donut Hole of Ascension Parish—you know in the center of a fat glazed donut, where the glaze falls through? That’s Gonzales,” says the town’s engineer, Jackie Baumann. She rolls out a map to show me how water flows downslope into the parish from three places.
“This bayou down here, Bayou Boyle, that’s the root of most of the flooding problems,” Baumann says. “The bayou doesn’t know the city limit line.”
A solitary group of houses on Silverleaf Street is particularly vulnerable. It’s next to about 50 acres of city-owned swamp. Ascension Parish and Gonzales work together to pump water away from the houses. Still, the swamp and the street are low ground.
When the road floods, Silverleaf residents park in the church lot to keep their cars clear. The school bus can’t get through. Neither can the postman.
“It’s everyday activity that’s impacted,” says Baumann. “And it’s getting to be too much. We could sit here and try to rehash out why it happened. The truth is, they live there and it’s just an issue that must be fixed.”
Both communities are establishing buyout programs that would be funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture—Natural Resources Conservation Service grants. Potential participants fill out lengthy questionnaires to participate, the first in about 20 steps towards an eventual buyout.
This buyout fix is a big deal because it’s newly applied to housing, and unprecedented in the South. The federal grant program aims to return developed land to wetlands. It would rip out houses: sewers, water pipes, and electric lines, too.
“They’ve never actually taken the money and used it to buy a residential home until Sandy,” Baumann says.
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Under the grant’s terms, everyone next to the swamps has to agree for anyone to get the money. But no two situations are exactly the same, says Rob Freudenberg, vice president of energy and environmental programs for the Regional Plan Association, a think tank in New York. Even where flooding is getting worse, he says buyouts have a mixed appeal.
“They’re going to be most attractive to folks who don’t have that much to lose, can’t afford to rebuild, maybe are underwater in their mortgage,” says Freudenberg.
After Sandy, New York and New Jersey sweetened federal buyout offers with state support. Mark Riley from Louisiana’s Office of Community Development says when it comes to reducing flood risk, that’s money well spent.
“There’s been a tremendous shift in ideology on how we approach these things and how we spend the money, so looking at the community basis on this is a much smarter thing to do,” Riley says.
The federal grant would pay Gonzales and Pecan Acres the cash value of houses from before the flood. On top of that, Riley says the state could help with moving costs, new appliances, or even new land.
“The goal is to get them into a residence that is equivalent to what they’ve got today,” Riley says. “That’s what we’re hoping.”
After Superstorm Sandy, Rob Freudenberg says communities taking buyouts needed another kind of support: the psychological kind.
“I think the idea of requesting a buyout and then actually living through it are two different things,” Freudenberg says. “It’s a long process. It’s bureaucratic. And this tool is something new and a little scary to folks.”
[Building a flood-proof skyscraper resilient to climate change.]
Not surprising, then, if people lose their houses, they often want to keep their neighbors. In Pecan Acres, homeowner Ethel Stewart says she’d like it if they all moved to a new development.
“Everyone knows each other,” she says.
Pecan Acres hasn’t yet decided its fate, but buyouts are attractive here for a few reasons. Most people have paid off their houses—or they’re close. And most people can’t afford flood insurance.
“Let us all come together so we can go as one and move another place instead of flooding out every year because we’re getting older,” Stewart says. “We’ll be better off. We won’t got to worry about worrying when the storms come.”
Stewart’s logic is familiar to Jackie Baumann, the engineer down in Gonzales. Across South Louisiana, flood risk is already forcing people to relocate—just, piecemeal, and on their own. Baumann is from Plaquemines Parish. She goes back down there to visit, to fish. But like many of their neighbors, her family has moved away.
“It is a loss, but none of my—I’m glad my family doesn’t live there anymore, and it’s hard for me to say that but I’m glad,” she says, growing visibly upset.
Baumann says engineering can only do so much against Mother Nature; pumps and levees may not be the best protection in the future. Bigger floods, like last year’s may happen more often as global temperatures rise and air can hold more moisture. To her town, and Louisiana. Baumann says, change is coming.
“We’re not alone. West Virginia had floods, Carolinas had floods, Missouri had floods, Alaska, Tennessee. Texas has flooded,” she says. “We’re not alone, and it’s gonna keep happening.”
Molly Peterson is a science and environmental reporter at KQED in Los Angeles, California.
IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to check in on the state of science.
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IRA FLATOW: This is a segment where we highlight science stories from communities around the nation, and today’s story comes to us from the public radio station WWNO in Louisiana, where a USDA program might pay whole neighborhoods of people to move out of their flood prone houses and settle down in safer ground. Molly Peterson reported that story for Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, and she’s here with us now. Welcome back to Science Friday, Molly.
MOLLY PETERSON: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: So set the scene for us. Where are these neighborhoods in Louisiana?
MOLLY PETERSON: Well, last year, in early August of 2016, there was a massive flood in Louisiana. It covered many parishes. 13 people died, and there was about $2.4 billion in flood insurance claims. These neighborhoods are near Baton Rouge. One of them is Northwest of Baton Rouge, in Point Coupee Parish– I’m sorry, Point Coupee Parish, and the other one is in the town of Gonzales, which is in Ascension Parish, on a street called Silverleaf.
IRA FLATOW: And some of these residents have witnessed some pretty devastating floods. I know you interviewed one resident, Ethel Stewart, about a big flood there in 2016. We have a clip of that.
ETHEL STEWART: Oh, it came. It was rushing by 4 o’clock. Mm-hm. They blowed the horn for us all to get out. When they’re saying, get out, we got out. Those sand bags don’t even do water justice. The water going right straight through it.
MOLLY PETERSON: So when you got here, did it flood like this?
ETHEL STEWART: No.
MOLLY PETERSON: It’s gotten worse?
ETHEL STEWART: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: So she’s telling you things are getting worse over time.
MOLLY PETERSON: Yeah. I went door to door in that neighborhood in the depth of summer, just knocking on doors. A lot of people are still coming back. They might have cell phones that are on or not on. But you know, they’re still figuring out how to put their houses back together.
These are largely poor, elderly, black folk who’ve been here 40 years or so. They call their own neighborhood, Flood City.
IRA FLATOW: Mm. You asked some of the residents in the Pecan Acres about how they feel about having their whole neighborhood relocate. And Ethel Stewart, again, said–
ETHEL STEWART: Let us all come together so we can go as one and move another place, instead of flooding out every year, because we’re getting older. We’ll be better off.
IRA FLATOW: So– I’m sorry. Why the USDA? Why not FEMA money or something like that?
MOLLY PETERSON: Well, the USDA has something called the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and within that, the Emergency Watershed Protection Grant. This grant is widely used all over the country. It’s just usually used to take land that’s used for farmland and turn it back into wetlands. It pays people the value of the property before the flood incident. And to return the land to a wetland, you have to rip out everything human that people put there– so houses, foundations, pipes, sewers, electrical, everything.
IRA FLATOW: Did you do– did you find that everyone felt like Ethel Stewart about getting out, or was there pushback on this?
MOLLY PETERSON: There was pushback. I mean, people in Pecan Acres tend to be in the same position. So I think that’s a good reason why– and they’ve all continued to live in their own houses. So I think those are reasons why they want to stay together. In Silverleaf, in Gonzales, where some people are renting, some people are newer to the neighborhood than others, it’s a little more complicated, and they haven’t decided.
IRA FLATOW: President Trump announced that he wants to put an end to federal flood insurance on vulnerable coastlines, like Florida and Louisiana, places like that. Climate activists are actually cheering him on on this.
MOLLY PETERSON: Yeah. Though it’s important to note that the idea actually came from Craig Fugate, the former head of FEMA under Obama, who raised this idea immediately after Hurricane Harvey and after President Trump rescinded an executive order from 2015 that required federal agencies to develop new flood standards. So yeah. Climate actors are cheering this on, but this is an idea that people who don’t like talking about climate change in this area also support.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, it may be a way that the president doesn’t know he’s endorsing the idea of climate change when he says he doesn’t– when he thinks it’s a hoax.
MOLLY PETERSON: Yeah. I mean, I think these disaster responders also say that this isn’t a natural disaster, that this is just a disaster, that we’ve allowed people to build in places and rebuild and remain in places that are dangerous. Louisiana has a lot of those.
IRA FLATOW: Molly Peterson covers climate environment issues, and she’s reported this story for the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership. And we’re hoping that everybody in the Gulf Coast comes through Hurricane Nate, scheduled to touchdown this weekend, unscathed. Thank you, Molly.
MOLLY PETERSON: You’re welcome.
IRA FLATOW: After the break, the ABC’s of Altcoins, Bitcoins, cryptocurrency. It makes your hair hurt. We’re going to try to make that a little less troublesome for you. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.
Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.