Outside the Walls: Homeowners beyond New Orleans face financial storm

Javier Guerrero stands under one of his 600 dead citrus trees wiped out in Hurricane Isaac (photo by John Snell)
Javier Guerrero stands under one of his 600 dead citrus trees wiped out in Hurricane Isaac (photo by John Snell)

East Plaquemines Parish, La. -- Nearly nine months after Hurricane Isaac made landfall, Javier Guerrero looks over his gutted house and 600 dead citrus trees.

Guerrero plans to replant his trees and convert his old home entirely into a farm.

"It's in disarray," he told us. "It's taken time to clean it up, trying to do it all by yourself."

He plans to tear down the house, explaining his wife doesn't want to come back to East Plaquemines Parish: "She doesn't want to go through this episode again."

Fortunately, the Guerreros already had purchased another home in Hammond before Isaac to give them "a place to run." Instead, that has become their permanent home.

In a five-mile radius, Guerrero counts roughly half a dozen families that have moved back since the storm.

Braithwaite and vicinity is hardly alone when it comes to depopulation. Outside the giant, new flood walls in St. Bernard, the Parish President's office estimates roughly 100 people now live. That represents, conservatively, less than half the pre-Katrina population.

While Terrebonne Parish boasts one of the strongest local economies in Louisiana, many areas south of Houma have been emptying. Since 1990, the parish's planning department estimates roughly 25 percent fewer people in the bayou communities.

Coming back was never going to be easy for flood victims, who now face an additional, financial storm.

A decade of extreme flooding swamped the National Flood Insurance Program, running it close to $20 billion in the hole. Congress passed the Biggert-Waters Act, which keeps alive the program while phasing out  federal flood insurance subsidies.

Unless the law is amended, home and business owners could get socked with dramatically higher premiums.

All over south Louisiana, from Terrebonne to St. Charles to St. Tammany, residents and parish leaders are hitting the panic button.

In Madisonville, Ryan Richard recently received notice from FEMA that the flood insurance on his restaurant would be canceled.  The apparent form letter assumes Richard has rebuilt Friends Coastal Restaurant.

"I don't know what we'd be doing right now, because we'd already be open," Richard said.

His insurance broker told him "we probably couldn't afford to pay those rates" for Friends, a high-risk, repeat flood property.

However, Richard has no intention of rebuilding Friends.

Instead, he plans to tear down the 7,000 square foot facility, replacing it with a 30,000 square foot elevated restaurant.

"The Lighthouse Restaurant" would be four eateries in one, complete with dockside dining, a full-service bar and dining area inside, banquet facilities and a fully-functioning lighthouse.

The Lighthouse, which Richard hopes to open next year, would be elevated to escape future surges and the new world of insurance.

"It's a new reality and it's scary," Richard said.

He worries many people in the historic river town will be priced out of the market.

"Where rates are going no one knows," said Richard, who has heard estimates of $18,000 on a $200,000 cottage.

Parish President Pat Brister believes, unless amended, Biggert-Waters will force residents to either raise their homes or abandon them.

"I think we're going to look quite differently," Brister said.

"I think we're going to look quite differently," Brister said.