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Plaquemines Parish fears for its future

Louisiana’s low-lying Plaquemines Parish is confronting a federal cost-benefit analysis that has thrown rebuilding of some rural Gulf Coast communities into doubt.
Chuck Bulot stands in front of a dummy he and his friends made to guard their trailers in lower Plaquemines Parish, La., on Thursday.
Chuck Bulot stands in front of a dummy he and his friends made to guard their trailers in lower Plaquemines Parish, La., on Thursday. Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

This small town is a sliver of land wedged between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, and when Hurricane Katrina made landfall here in August, a raging storm surge wrecked virtually every storefront, office and home.

Now hundreds of people, many of them fishermen or oil-rig workers drawn by long family ties, have returned to live in trailers and hope to rebuild in this same precarious spot.

The question is: Should they be allowed to?

Staggering new cost estimates for building levees here put the price of protecting this little town and others like it in lower Plaquemines Parish at $1.6 billion, or more than $100,000 for every person living here before the flood, federal rebuilding coordinators reported this week.

Fears of abandonment
The dismal cost-benefit analysis has thrown into doubt not only the levee project but also the continued existence of the rural communities that are depending on it in this water-rimmed strip about 60 miles southeast of New Orleans.

"It would be the first time that this country has simply abandoned an entire community -- at least I can't think of another example like it," said Benny Rousselle, president of the parish. "It would be a shame. You can't put a price on these people's lives. Look at all the faults in California. Look at all the hurricanes in Florida. Do they make those people move out?"

With an estimated 20 square miles of coastal Louisiana disappearing every year, scientists have long raised the possibility that there may have to be a "managed retreat" from portions of the coast, with some unfortunate communities pulling up stakes as the waters encircle their settlements.

Not fixing the levees in lower Plaquemines Parish, now a distinct possibility, would amount to the same thing, residents said.

Federal rebuilding coordinator Donald Powell announced this week that the Bush administration is proposing to spend an additional $2.5 billion to improve levees in the New Orleans area -- but not in lower Plaquemines Parish. The administration continues to study whether improving the levees there to meet flood insurance standards would be "economically justifiable."

Without the levee project, people here could not get flood insurance -- or mortgages -- for new or rebuilt homes unless they raise them 20 to 35 feet above the ground, federal officials said. Many believe that prospect would lead to the virtual abandonment of the area, which once counted nearly 15,000 residents.

Prized way of life
Some have argued that the federal government should refrain from protecting or insuring development in vulnerable locales such as lower Plaquemines Parish, but that is a hard message for many people here.

The small towns and other patches of development of lower Plaquemines Parish are strung along a narrow strip of land along the Mississippi River, and residents prize the fishing and hunting available to them. For the vast majority of adults, formal education stopped after high school. French surnames are common, and nearly 90 percent of residents were born in Louisiana.

The threatened circumstances of this small town are obvious to any visitor. On one side are levees about 20 feet high holding out the Gulf; on the other side of the town, within view just a few hundred yards away, are similar earthen mounds holding out the Mississippi River.

Those levees will continue to provide some protection, but not enough to meet the flood insurance standards, which call for levees that would hold out water in a flood that has only a 1 percent chance of happening any given year. The Plaquemines Parish levees are as much as eight feet too low in places, officials said.

Natural protection disappears
To people who have spent their entire lives here -- and there are many -- that vulnerability has drastically increased over decades, as the coastal wetlands that protected them have disappeared.

"This used to be a kind of paradise," said Malcolm Olds, 41, a native who had a home next to the river levee that was wrecked by Katrina. "We had crawfish traps all over, we could fish, we could duck-hunt."

Now, he says, "I'm scared."

His great-great-grandparents, he said, were buried in land that is now part of the Mississippi River. And on the Gulf side of the town, where there was once land is now water, where he finds oysters.

"I went to the state to get an oyster lease, and they said you can't have an oyster lease there -- that's land," Olds recalled. "But they were looking at maps and aerials from the '60s. It's all underwater now."

Without the protection of the land and marshland, scientists say, this narrow spit of land has become more vulnerable to the storm surges that accompany hurricanes.

Stay or go? A difficult choice
Already, many people say living here has become difficult. The nearest movie theater is 75 miles away. Since Katrina hit Aug. 29, the nearest grocery has become a similarly long slog.

Combined with these hassles, the lack of levees good enough for flood insurance may be the final straw.

George Arnesen, 38, a commercial fisherman, is rebuilding the home he shared with his wife and two young children before the storm. He may be fortunate, in some respects, because he already has his building permits and can rebuild without worrying about new flood insurance rules. He was outside recently repairing the house, which took on 16 feet of water.

"It's going to cost so much to raise a house in the air," he noted. "There are limits if you're a working person."

Besides, he said, "when you're up in the air, you're only going to catch that much more wind in a hurricane."

Residents said they fear that the government is being shortsighted. They note the importance of the river to trade and of the oil industry off the coast.

‘Sympathetic but noncommittal’
But the outlook is not good. Congress has balked at the rebuilding bills. And in talking to reporters this week about the projected additional $4.1 billion cost of providing levees strong enough to meet flood insurance standards in the New Orleans area, Powell noted that 98 percent of the population could be protected with $2.5 billion. The unspoken bad news was that lower Plaquemines Parish, which constitutes the other 2 percent of the population in the area, would cost another $1.6 billion to protect.

Rousselle, who met with Powell recently with hopes of winning the funding, said he found him "sympathetic but noncommittal."

Whether the federal government should seek to preserve coastal Louisiana communities has been an issue since the storm. Shortly after Katrina hit, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) questioned whether it was wise to use federal funds to rebuild a low-lying, hurricane-prone city.

Locals such as Rousselle hope the case can be made.

"I don't think President Bush will abandon us," he said recently, a trace of doubt evident in his voice. "I'm just trying to remain optimistic."