Louisiana faces an unimaginable scenario: An exodus from the coast

Sunday, March 19, 2006

LAFITTE, La. -- Once the salt water is in your veins, Louisiana's coastal folk say, it's hard to give up the lifestyle of moonlit shrimping trips, the town "fais do-do" dances and afternoons spent on the bayous angling for catfish.

But since last year's catastrophic hurricanes, this swampy land defined by Cajuns, cypress and tupelo gum forests, bayou-side saloons and, more recently, subdivisions may have become too vulnerable for that lifestyle to continue.

Even before the devastation caused by Katrina, Louisiana's swampy coast had been sinking by as much as 2 inches a year. Along with that subsidence, the area is even more susceptible to flooding because last year's hurricanes damaged vast tracts of wetlands -- already shrinking because of man's activities -- that used to buffer the area from storms blowing in off the Gulf of Mexico.

All of those factors will be reflected in new Federal Emergency Management Agency flood-vulnerability maps due to be released soon that are the basis for flood insurance rates.

The maps will likely make the insurance more costly, force residents to spend heavily to raise homes out of flood plains to qualify for coverage, make many other homes uninsurable and make lenders less willing to loan money for construction in flood-prone areas.

That new reality may threaten the state's coastal population and its heritage of shrimp fishing, alligator hunting, fur trapping and oyster harvesting.

Some of the roughhewn people down here won't leave willingly.

"You've got earthquakes, you've got fires, you've got volcanoes, you've got tornadoes in tornado alley," said A.J. Fabre, an outspoken leader among shrimp fishermen in Lafitte, about 30 miles south of New Orleans. "Where are you going to have everybody? In Missouri?"

Nearly every house in the area, most of them built on slabs, was flooded by Hurricane Rita. Now, families live in trailers as they rebuild.

"It's a quiet community. Virtually no crime. Kids steal a couple of bicycles," Fabre says.

But the future is gloomy. Fabre's place, a small brick house he inherited from his grandfather, has been condemned because of wind and flood damage. The only thing left of a shrimp processing plant there is a concrete slab, and the old family dock is barnacled, broken and useless.

With no flood insurance, Fabre isn't sure if he'll be able to rebuild. He and his wife might have to demolish the place and buy a mobile home.

He insists he is not defeated and lashes out at politicians, importers, the federal government.

"The fight has just begun," he said.

But many of his neighbors and friends aren't so sanguine.

"We're doomed," said Jimmy Terrebonne, a 46-year-old boat builder. He tells his children to get an education and get out of the fishing trades.

As for himself, he said, "I can't do anything else. I don't have an education. I ain't leaving until it's gone. When the land's gone, I'm leaving."

Many coastal experts believe life along the coast is going to change dramatically with the new flood maps.

"Where we had subdivisions in the marshes, they will not come back," said Shea Penland, a coastal scientist with the University of New Orleans. "I can't believe they're sustainable."

"There are going to be some significant changes across the board," said Butch Kinerney, a FEMA spokesman.

For one thing, much more is known since FEMA last calculated the area's flood vulnerability in 1984 about the area's rate of subsidence.

Last year, the National Geodetic Survey issued a report saying the area was sinking by a half-inch to 2 inches a year, and that was as of 1995.

"When they built the levees, it wasn't below sea level. It was dry land. Now it's dry land only because of the levees," said Roy Dokka, a Louisiana State University subsidence specialist.

About 1,000 homes damaged by Rita's storm surge in the heavily Cajun region southwest of Lafayette called Vermilion Parish might need to be raised to be eligible for insurance, said Robert LeBlanc, the parish's emergency preparedness director.

Younger people might leave, LeBlanc said.

Many others, however, are determined to stay.

"People like where they live, they're content," said Kimberly Chauvin, the wife of a shrimper who is thinking of raising their already-raised home up to 10 feet higher. "I wouldn't want to move to the city, not at all."

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