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Along The Coast, The Best Response To Flooding May Be To Elevate Your Home

Jesse Hardman

Making a home in Southeastern Louisiana has always meant risk of flooding. While some families in low lying coastal parishes elevated their homes in the 1990s, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita kicked off a boom of raising homes.

Now, more than 150 elevation companies operate in Orleans Parish alone, and have spent the past decade competing for billions of dollars in federal subsidies to help local homeowners elevate.   

Kim Reeves is going through her checklist of a home renovation in Plaquemines Parish. "I'm going with a stucco color that is going to mimic the stucco color on the front of his house that he has now," she says.

But Reeves isn't a decorator, she's an engineer. And she's not talking about trim, she's talking about the 12-foot stilts now elevating this two-story home. Reeves has to crane her neck to take in this miniature brick mansion. It sits at the foot of a levee on the West Bank of the Mississippi River.

During Hurricane Isaac the house took on 5 feet of water. After that, the owner secured some grant money from the parish to elevate. 

Reeves works for Orleans Shoring — as in shoring up your home against flooding. She spends most of her days driving around to visit homeowners. She talks to them about their home's natural elevation, the structure of the home, and how many times they've flooded. "Even though I know in the back of their minds they gotta be telling themselves 'this is better than going through what I've been going through all these years again,'" she says. "But it takes a lot out of a family." 

Credit Jesse Hardman
A low raise in Jefferson Parish gets a one story house up 3 feet

Orleans Shoring does "high raises," up to 18 feet. That takes three months and is mostly for vulnerable homes, south of I-10. The bulk of work these days is for low raises, 3 to 4 feet. That takes around 40 days, and it's mostly for homes in the city, inside levee protection.

Reeves checks in on a low raise, one of three on the same block she's doing in Jefferson Parish. It's a single story home owned by an elderly woman. Hydraulic devices lifted up the whole house a few days ago. Now it sits 3 feet higher, on concrete stilts. 

"I normally place piles every 6 feet," says Reeves, "Some companies don't believe they need to be that close. I do."

The race to raise homes in Southeast Louisiana was fueled initially by federal and state grants after Hurricane Katrina. Now it's administered through parish run programs. Mike Hunnicutt oversees home elevation in St. Bernard Parish, where more than 25,000 homes flooded after Katrina. Hunnicutt says elevation ranks as the best alternative, "to tearing your house down or moving."

122 homeowners have been approved for elevation assistance from St. Bernard Parish since this latest FEMA funded program began in 2013. Hunnicutt says it costs around $150,000 to raise a home, and applicants have to cover a quarter of that. A raise can help keep flood insurance rates down a little. But clearly, living on a floodplain gets expensive.

"I believe people would probably just live in their homes without the insurance," Hunnicutt says. "I would hate to see that happen. Especially when you see catastrophic events. But I think people will live in those homes without insurance, just to live where they want to live. To live home."

Credit Jesse Hardman
Betty Jane Adams looks out from her porch onto an expanding bay at the end of Oleander road in Chauvin

Betty Jane Adams steps in an elevator. There's only two stops, her carport, and 11.5 feet up in her new house. 73-year-old Adams has been through more floods than she can remember in Chauvin, a town at the southern edge of Terrebonne Parish.

Adams has Bayou Little Caillou on one end of her street, and a marsh that's become open water on the other. The worst was after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as much as nine feet of water came in. "When we had the flood over here, the water stayed for 18 days, so everything in the house I had was rotten."

The original house on Adams's property was ground level. She's on a fixed income so she didn't have money to elevate. "Nobody down here is in a position to move away," says Adams, "It takes money to buy elsewhere. Me, I couldn't, so I chose to stay."

Credit Jesse Hardman / WWNO
Betty Jane Adams looks at insurance photos of her flooded home from 2005.

At first homeless, then living out of a FEMA trailer, Adams caught the eye of a local non-profit looking for sustainable solutions to flooding in the parish. The Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition, or TRAC, helped design, fund, and build Adams's new place.

TRAC Director Peg Case estimates around 1,000 homes in Terrebonne Parish have been elevated since Katrina. "To me that's huge, that's like watching an evolution to watch that happen with a ten year period, it's very uplifting," Case says.

When Betty Jane Adams looks out from her front porch, 100 feet away is a beautiful but expanding bay. The levee meant to protect her street sits at a very low 10 feet. But she's up high, and the only thing bugging her now are some of her low-lying neighbors.

"I think the problem they have with me is jealousy," she says. "That I have this house and I didn't have nothing before. All of a sudden I got a nice house. I think it's killin' 'em'"

Adams says everybody had a chance with federal grant money to go up higher after Katrina. Those who didn't will have to wait for the next storm to hopefully blow in some new funding.

As the new Coastal Reporter, Jesse Hardman will draw on 15 years of worldwide experience in radio, video and print journalism. As a radio reporter he has reported for NPR, BBC, and CBC, and for such familiar programs as Marketplace, This American Life, Latino USA, and Living on Earth. He served as a daily news reporter and news magazine producer for WBEZ in Chicago.