Louisiana Community ‘a Ghost Town’ a Year After Isaac

By STACEY PLAISANCE | August 28, 2013

Isaac barely had hurricane-strength winds when it blew ashore southwest of New Orleans a year ago, but its effects are still apparent in coastal areas where it flooded thousands of homes.

After landfall on Aug 28, 2012, Isaac stalled, dumping more than a foot of rain and churning a monstrous storm surge. Water flowed over levees and destroyed homes and businesses in coastal Louisiana and Mississippi.

In the end, it was blamed for seven deaths. In Plaquemines Parish, one of the hardest hit areas, damage to homes and businesses has been estimated at more than $100 million, said Guy Laigast, director of the parish’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Two of the deaths from Isaac were in Braithwaite, La., a small community along the Mississippi River near New Orleans that has been all but abandoned since the storm.

Streets where children once played are eerily deserted. Homes with blown-out windows and toppled porches sit on lots overgrown with weeds reaching past window sills.

A house landed on a levee after flood waters topped the levee in Braithwaite, La. Photo by Patsy Lynch/FEMA
A house landed on a levee after flood waters topped the levee in Braithwaite, La. Photo by Patsy Lynch/FEMA

The storm left many residents facing prohibitive increases to flood insurance premiums if they choose to move back. Some have spent insurance payouts on houses elsewhere and have asked that their homes in Braithwaite be demolished. Others are taking their time considering whether home improvements or changes to local levees could make it affordable to insure their houses in the future.

Angela Serpas’ insurance rates under the National Flood Insurance Program would more than double to about $9,200 a year if she were to repair her home and move back in, she said. Homeowner insurance – which covers wind damage – is an additional cost.

“Who can afford to pay that?” she said. “We want to come home, but we can’t.”

Serpas and her teenage son were visiting the neighborhood of about 75 homes on a hot August day. They were alone except for two Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Office cars on patrol.

“It’s very, very sad and very hard to deal with,” said Angela Serpas, taking in a gentle breeze from a swing hanging from a tree near her flooded home, which has not been renovated.

In Congress, Louisiana lawmakers are seeking to delay flood insurance premium increases for some coastal homeowners under a law passed last year. The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 was passed in an effort to keep the National Flood Insurance Program solvent after an onslaught of claims from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Still, homeowners such as Serpas had been seeing increases to the cost of their flood insurance even before the act passed. And policyholders can generally expect their premiums to rise each time their house floods.

Laigast said that under the changes passed in 2012, the NFIP is only recognizing levees built to a high standard – able to withstand a so-called 500-year flood – that excludes many levees built by local authorities. Laigast said Louisiana officials are also arguing that all levees should be recognized and taken into account when adjusting homeowner’s flood insurance rates.

In addition, Laigast said Plaquemines Parish is working to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve the local levee system, but it’s not clear when that could happen. Higher levees could reduce insurance costs for residents.

Serpas could decide not to carry flood insurance because she owns the house outright, but fears of another flood prevent her from taking that chance. Her home sits just outside the protection of a 20-foot-tall floodwall built after Hurricane Katrina.

“We can’t rebuild without levee protection,” she said. “It’s too big of a risk.”

The family took an insurance payout after Isaac and bought another home in nearby St. Bernard Parish, inside a new levee system.

But it’s not home, she said.

“This is home. Braithwaite is home,” she said, choked with emotion.

Nearby, a hotelier is moving ahead with plans to reopen a centuries-old plantation that has been used for years to host weddings and other events.

Blake Miller, who owns hotels in New Orleans’ French Quarter, said it has taken nearly a year to repair damage the 300-year-old Mary Plantation suffered in Isaac.

“She’s been through a lot of storms, she’s survived, she’s built like nothing else, so she’s seen it all,” said Blake Miller, a French Quarter hotelier who bought the plantation just a few months before Isaac swamped it with 10 feet of floodwater.

The bottom rooms are made of 16-inch thick brick walls, now cleared of mud and muck left by Isaac. Miller replenished the home with period French country furnishings that can be hauled upstairs if another storm threatens.

Miller plans to self-insure the business but sympathizes with homeowners who can’t afford to do so.

“It’s outrageous, and that’s the reason why so many people are not returning,” he said.

Miller said he feels confident about the future of Mary Plantation.

“It’s been here for almost 300 years. She’ll survive,” he said.

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