For the first 50 years of his life Donald Stokes lived happily in Braithwaite, a town of a few hundred residents in Plaquemines Parish. In 2006 he and his wife decided to leave.
Stokes says it was such a painful departure that it took him two years to actually complete the move. “Slowly but surely I put stuff on a trailer, came back, put stuff on a trailer, came back. It wasn't easy. It felt like I was uprooting my life.”
By the sad look on his face, you’d think Stokes left Louisiana for another, far away state. In fact, he and his wife were just five miles away, in St. Bernard Parish. He says they left because local officials simply wouldn’t improve local flood protection. “Because they wasn't doing nothing with the levees. We'd go back in there and go fishing and everything, and you could stand up and look across the levee.”
St. Bernard Parish has a 26-foot-high flood wall, right at the foot of the Plaquemines Parish line, and a new federal levee system. The local levee that protects Braithwaite, and some other parts of the East Bank of Plaquemines Parish, is only around eight feet, four feet short of federal standards.
Building the levee higher has been an arduous process that started more than a decade ago. The most recent effort saw a private contractor start the job and then quit in a dispute over money. Now a 200-foot crack has been discovered in another part of the levee.
P.J. Hahn is the Coastal manager for Plaquemines Parish, an area that includes the last few miles of the Mississippi River before it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Hahn says he’s working hard to create better protection for his flood and storm prone Parish.
"There's going to have to be a hard look at some of these communities," he says. "We're going to have to raise homes, and in some cases, unfortunately, we're going to have to look at an area and say we're going to have to buy these folks out, and come to the realization that we're not going to be able to protect everybody."
Hahn could easily be referencing Braithwaite, a town of black residents who have lived in simple homes, on small parcels of inherited land for generations. They live on the East Bank of Plaquemines Parish, outside the federal levee system.
It’s 9 a.m. on a recent Sunday morning at the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Braithwaite. Pastor Michael Jiles is just getting warmed up. "When storms come in our lives, it’s easy to just give up, just quit," he says to the congregation. "Hold on, just a while longer."
Pastor Jiles is preaching a message of resilience to his community. He’s talking about surviving all kinds of different hardships, including environmental ones. "After Hurricane Isaac, a lot of people said, just quit, just give up, don’t come back, it’s easier to go somewhere else. That’s easy to say and do for some people, but as God before you, God don’t deal with quitters."
While it barely damaged nearby New Orleans, 2012’s Hurricane Isaac hit Braithwaite with some biblical flooding, more than 12 feet of water. Jiles evacuated to Houston ahead of the storm. He said one of his parishioners called him from Alabama to tell him a photo of his two story house, the roof barely visible above raging flood waters, had made the front page of a local newspaper.
When the flood waters subsided Jiles had a chance to see the fate of his church, too. "Bibles all over the floor, a lot of mud, a lot of mud. Everything, pews just turned upside down. It was just a mess."
Some Braithwaite residents had enough after Isaac. They moved nearby to St. Bernard Parish, where they felt more secure. But Jiles says at least 100 people came back, and stayed, living on their family land in damaged homes and trailers.
Sitting in his rebuilt Braithwaite home, Jiles says he acknowledges the geographic precariousness of his situation. But other things outweigh that ongoing danger. "It's my home. I love everything about it. I love that I can go outside, I don't have to worry about crime, I don't have to worry about my neighbors, robbing or stealing."
Jiles says his community is historically rural and poor. People have more to gain from staying on the land that was passed on to them, where they can farm and fish, and they’re near friends and family. Moving, even if its just five miles away to St. Bernard, will sever those deep ties.
Christopher Dalbolm is the program manager at the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy. Dalbolm says when governments look at the cost benefit analysis of allowing communities like Braithwaite to stay put, they often forget the human element.
"What’s the value of community? The economic value. What allows a single parent to work? Somebody else in the community watching their kids. If those things are lost, what does that say, when people inevitably have to scatter over time. There’s an economic value to community that’s assumed away."
Jiles says there’s some economic reasons for his community to stay too. He says a state or federal home buyout doesn’t add up for Braithwaite residents. "The average home round here, what they gonna get, $25,000, $30,000. If that much. You can't do anything with that."
When Pastor Michael Jiles walks out his front door in the morning, the first thing he sees is the green slope of the levee that local officials just can’t seem to get up high enough. But Jiles says unless somebody forces him to move, he’s going to stay on his ancestral land, and pray that the Mississippi River doesn’t rise above 8 feet. "If I have to be the last man in Braithwaite, I'll be the last man in Braithwaite. I'll be the last man."
Support for WWNO's Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Kabacoff Family Foundation.