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Louisiana Tries New Defense Against Floods — Move People To Higher Ground


Now we're going to turn to Louisiana. It's on low ground, and residents there have long built flood barriers to stay safe. But that's no longer enough. Now state officials have mapped out areas that will have to be let go. The problem is that more than 2,000 families live on that land that can no longer be protected. As Ryan Kailath of member station WWNO reports, authorities have made a striking recommendation to deal with this.

RYAN KAILATH, BYLINE: Al Yates and Anthony Caronia live just north of New Orleans in St. Tammany Parish. They've been neighbors for 30 years. Last week, the two friends stood outside marveling at a huge flock of purple martins.

AL YATES: I don't know why they came here so early. They're supposed to come in May.

ANTHONY CARONIA: And then you've got the alligators already showing up, and then you see the fish striking.


CARONIA: We go by the birds and the trees and the...


CARONIA: ...Flowers out here.

KAILATH: These guys love the warm weather, but it makes them nervous that nature feels out of whack. To them, a mild winter signals a hot, stormy summer. And in this neighborhood...

CARONIA: Anytime you hear a storm's even getting anywhere close to Florida into the Gulf of Mexico, you get ready.

KAILATH: Caronia says he evacuates his family about four times a year - shuts down his towing company, pulls his son out of school.

CARONIA: The hardest part is getting your family a place to stay. You might have to go five hours out till this passes.

KAILATH: Caronia didn't set out to live in one of the most disaster-prone parts of the state. When his parents first got here, the area was pretty well-protected. But decades of storms, rising seas and sinking land have changed all that. The state is now recommending his area for voluntary home buyouts. The plan is to move people out of harm's way, knock the houses down and turn the land itself into a natural storm barrier. There's no cash offer on the table yet, but if there were...

CARONIA: Gone. I'm gone. I'm leaving. Mr. Alvin, too - he's selling. Anybody you talk back here, they're afraid now. It's scary, sir.

BREN HAASE: This is the most aggressive step that Louisiana has taken to implement these sort of programs and to take a sort of an alternative look at how we might reduce risk.

KAILATH: Bren Haase is chief of planning for the state's coastal authority. Reduced risk, he says, that's what levees and floodgates do. But move to higher ground and you can leave a lot of that risk behind. Public policy types have a name for this. They call it retreat.

Has that word come up before?

PAT BRISTER: I don't use it (laughter).

KAILATH: Pat Brister is president of the St. Tammany Parish where more than a third of these buyouts are recommended, more than anywhere else. The idea of retreat does not sit well with her.

BRISTER: These are not just homes. I know the people that live in these homes, and I know they've lived there for some generations. So it's not as simple as just buy the home out. It's lives that we're talking about. So it's not easy.

KAILATH: Retreating would hurt the local economy, too. If people leave, their property taxes go with them. Brister would rather keep people in their homes by building new flood barriers. The state's new plan does call for that, but there's not enough money budgeted yet. And even if there were, it would take 30 years to finish building something strong enough to keep Caronia and his neighbors dry. He says he doesn't have that kind of time.

CARONIA: It's time to let us go. We're in our 50s and 60s and 70s back here. We're tired.

KAILATH: Tired of storms, tired of flooding, tired of waiting. To him, retreat doesn't sound like such a bad plan.

For NPR News, I'm Ryan Kailath.


Ryan Kailath
Ryan Kailath [KY-lawth] is a business reporter at NPR in the New York bureau.