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To Stay Or Go: Coastal Residents Face Mixed Messages

Tegan Wendland
The Buras YMCA was paid for with $8 million from FEMA after Hurricane Katrina. Officials hope new community buildings like this are an incentive for people to continue living here.

As Louisiana’s coast continues to wash away, small towns close to the water are more and more at risk. Lots of people have moved further inland. Yet the towns themselves not only remain, they often defiantly insist that they’re sticking around. WWNO’s Coastal Desk is exploring the idea of “retreat” - who’s thinking about it, and who’s not.

In Plaquemines Parish, people might be getting some mixed messages.

LA highway 23 winds down along the Mississippi River, through Plaquemines Parish, and when you’re far enough south, the levees tower on both sides. Raised family homes line the highway, many with boats parked in front. They’re mixed with abandoned, storm-damaged buildings, and empty cement slabs. Rising above them, near Buras, two big structures stand out.

There’s a red brick library. It’s stately, like something you’d see in a much bigger city, and on a typical Thursday afternoon, it’s nearly empty. Two people work on desktop computers but otherwise the $4 million building is empty. Over at the $8 YMCA, two or three men lift weights. It too, is largely empty. Both buildings were paid for with disaster recovery money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That’s about $12 million of federal investment in community buildings for a community that is shrinking and has been since Hurricane Katrina.

Scott Hemmerling works for the Water Institute of the Gulf, he asks, “Who are we building these for? Who uses them?”

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
The Plaquemines Parish Library was built with $4 million from FEMA after Hurricane Katrina.

Hemmerling is the director of people, resources and technology, and he studies population changes. It’s hard to say how many people have left Plaquemines over the past decade, but census numbers show at least a 14 percent decline between 2000 and 2010. Researchers and public officials say it’s more.

“I don’t know that they’re actually going to come back,” says Hemmerling.

But that’s not part of FEMA’s equation. When there’s a disaster, whether it’s a forest fire in Wyoming or a flood in New York, it gives money to communities to bring back what they lost. It doesn’t consider how that community might change because of the disaster, or have different needs.

So Plaquemines got shiny new buildings after Katrina, as a matter of course. Stan Mathes is the parish economic development director. “The way that FEMA would worked was that they would replace structures where they were and of the same size. They will replace what you had. They don’t want to replace less they don’t want to replace more,” says Mathes.

Makes sense - to get as much recovery money as possible, make it go as far as possible.

But Mathes says the system might be flawed, “Because sometimes you don’t need something as big as what you once had.” The most glaring example is a huge new jail on the east bank. There are beds for about 900. Only a third are filed. “It costs a lot of money to run a facility like that when you don’t have the population to justify it,” says Mathes.

After weeks of calls and requests, Mathes is the only official who would talk to me on record. It’s his job to attract business to the parish. He sees hope for that in Venture Global, which is planning to build a new liquefied natural gas export plant in lower Plaquemines. “There are other plants that are interested in opening in the parish. The more tax base you have, the more people come in, the more people come in the more of them stay and build new homes and build their families around that,” says Mathes.

People in Plaquemines see the nice new buildings like the library and the YMCA as a reason to live here. That includes Doneisha Williams, who works in the new library. After Hurricane Katrina she and her family went to stay in Alexandria. She hated it. She had to learn a new place and meet new neighbors, all she wanted was to come back to Plaquemines. She acknowledges that the hurricane was awful, but rationalizes the risk.  “Anywhere you go there is something – whether it’s a hurricane, tornados, earthquakes – there’s some type of natural disaster. I don’t think you can avoid that,” says Williams.

She was a librarian before, so when the library re-opened it made sense to move back. She says it’s worth the sacrifice, elevating her home, driving further for services, and paying for expensive flood insurance. “You make those concessions….You just do it,” says Williams.

When it comes to moving away now, “I never thought of that. What would it take for me to move? I guess old age.”

Much of her family didn’t move back to the area. As she ages, she’ll likely be better off closer to them and to better healthcare.

Hemmerling says she should think about those things, and not just when she’s elderly or infirm, but right now. He says officials should talk to her about it, too. “Really what the people want and need down on the coast is the truth, and it’s a painful truth. There’s areas we can’t protect,” says Hemmerling.

But he says if public officials talked directly with people who live way down in Plaquemines about the risk of continuing to live there, more might decide to move away. Even though it’s Mathes’ job to bring in new business and try to keep people in the parish, he, too, recognizes that the population is shifting north. But does he talk to residents about whether they should move? Do any officials? “No. Not at all. Why would we do that?,” he replies.

He’s working to get more industry on the coast - and keep people there. That’s what parish government wants, to maintain its tax base - to keep up public services, like schools. But the fact is, the parish can’t even pay for Mathes. His job of economic development director - it’s just been eliminated. He’s out of a job at the end of the month.

Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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