Indigenous peoples and people of color are disproportionately affected by our global climate crisis. But in the mainstream green movement and in the media, they are often forgotten or excluded. This is Tipping Point, a new VICE series that covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.
When Harold Terrance found a small plot of land for sale in New Roads, Louisiana, just a couple of miles from the west bank of the Mississippi River, it seemed too good to be true. It was 1969, and he was 19 years old, living on what he calls the “sharecropping side” of the False River. But by the time Terrance graduated high school, the days of tenant farming had come to an end and he was looking for land of his own.
There weren’t many home ownership options for former sharecroppers and their families, most of whom had little or no savings. So when Terrance heard that a local white landowner was interested in selling the plot of his makeshift trailer shop in Pointe Coupee Parish for cheap, he wasted little time in applying for a loan from the Federal Housing Administration. The spot was quiet and far from the highways connecting New Roads to the state capital of Baton Rouge, and Terrance liked how the plot pushed up against the Portage Canal on one side, creating a dead end. “We didn’t have nobody coming, no traffic. You either had to be coming to somebody’s house or you the mailman putting down the mail,” he said.
But two years later, in 1971, Terrance and other residents of the New Roads community of Pecan Acres learned why the seemingly idyllic land was sold to them so cheaply. During a heavy downpour, water from the canal overflowed and flooded into the bowl-shaped community, where it remained for days.
And then it happened again. And again. And again.
“My house must have flooded about 30 times. Maybe more,” said Terrance. The land, it turned out, was little more than a swamp. “FHA didn’t do us right. Why did you give me a loan and let me build up just one foot? It was an opportunity for us to get a house; the only thing is we got a house where it would flood at. We won but we lost,” Terrance said.
According to local officials, the community, comprised of around 40 families, has flooded 17 times in the past 30 years. As storms have become more aggressive and as water levels have risen, floods that have long plagued the area have become even more frequent and harmful.
Now, finally, residents are getting out: through a little-known Department of Agriculture program, the community has received funding to move to higher ground. In 2021, they’re set to become among the first residents in the U.S. to be resettled because of the climate crisis, and one of the first instances nationwide in which the whole community is leaving.
To many residents, it feels like a relief long overdue. For decades, the residents of what’s come to be known as “Flood City” were left to fend for themselves, excluded from federal disaster programs that employ strict definitions of who counts as a “disaster” victim. As climate change drives chronic flooding across the country, these definitions are increasingly at odds with the reality of many frontline communities trapped between rising waters on one side and rising housing costs on the other.
“Every time it would start raining, people didn’t know if they were going to flood or not—so you can’t sleep,” said Edward Bazile, who goes by “Pop,” a Pointe Coupee parish councilman who grew up and still lives just a mile up the road from Pecan Acres. After finding their dresser drawers repeatedly filled with water, some residents stopped using them, instead storing their clothes in waterproof plastic bags that could float on top of the rising waters. Every time a storm approached, neighbors would traverse the block, helping each other lift furniture and appliances onto cinder blocks.
Government assistance was limited. When flooding occurred during a storm that received a disaster declaration, residents were eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance to rebuild. But when flooding was caused by a less extreme event like a hard rain that overflowed the canal, as was often the case, that assistance wasn’t available. “FEMA would come in, Red Cross come; they give you a mop and a broom and some Clorox,” said Terrance.
According to FEMA rules, recipients of federal flood aid must maintain flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program to be eligible for aid again. For the mostly elderly residents, finding extra money out of their fixed incomes to pay the hefty premiums typical of high-risk areas proved impossible. Hardly anyone in the community holds a flood insurance policy today.
They were stuck. Another resident, Ida Banks, says that while she’s wanted to move to higher ground for years, she never tried to sell the house. “Nobody was going to come back here—we was trying to get out. They know you had flood; they weren’t going to come back here,” said Banks. “And the people had nowhere to go.”
Bazile tells the story of what the residents call “Flood City,” this way: “It was like, ‘Let’s follow the American dream,’ not knowing that the area is a flooded area. So they followed the American dream and kind of got stuck in the middle.”
With property values dropping and flood insurance costs on the rise in many flood-prone areas, it’s an increasingly common place to get stuck. And, with FEMA funding largely tied to storms, some of the most vulnerable communities in the country are left to fend off high waters on their own.
“A lot of the federal resources aren’t available for more localized events,” said Carolyn Kousky, executive director at the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “This can be particularly problematic with flooding, where you can see an event that’s really devastating for a small number of households and doesn’t rise to the level of getting a disaster declaration.”
As the waters of the August 2016 floods surged through the neighborhood—extreme even by Flood City standards—residents loudly demanded action, garnering the attention of environmental justice advocates like retired general Russel Honoré. On a tour of the neighborhood that month, Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards told residents, “This wasn’t on my radar screen. I just didn’t know.” He promised that help would be on the way.
Help came from an unlikely place: the Department of Agriculture. While the state had long worked with the Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to restore agricultural land into wetlands through its Emergency Watershed Protection program—buying flood-prone tracts from farmers and returning them to their natural conditions—the program had never been used in a residential area in the state before. The easement program would be put to the test in Pecan Acres, as well as in another flood-ravaged community called Silverleaf, about 60 miles away in the city of Gonzales. The program was also used to help restore some residential areas in New York to wetlands following Hurricane Sandy.
But getting out of Flood City was only half the battle. In Gonzales, a booming housing market offered many options for relocation, while there were few units on the market in New Roads, and the market value residents will receive from NRCS for the gutted homes will likely be far too low to afford much nearby. According to the Pointe Coupee Parish Assessor’s Office, many of the homes’ market values hovered around $50,000 in 2016 and have likely decreased since then. In March 2019, there were only nine homes for sale under $200,000 within 10 miles of Pecan Acres.
Using disaster recovery money from HUD, the state’s Office of Community Development jumped in to construct a new neighborhood nearby for the residents to relocate as a group. For many residents, the recognition was a welcome—if delayed—relief. “We were happy at least someone thought enough of us to see that we were losing,” said Shantina Banks, Ida Banks’ daughter. “We could never really get ahead because when something else comes, it just knocks you back down. You’re starting over constantly.”
But many residents’ excitement was tepid, at best. “A lot of the residents in the area were very skeptical. You couldn’t sell it to them easily, because they’d been let down so many times,” said Bazile, who determinedly persuaded the holdouts to participate.
Because it’s designed to convert the entire area into a wetland, the NRCS program required that all 40 households take part in the relocation. In most communities, getting unanimous buy-in has proved impossible. According to Jimmy Bramblett, deputy chief of programs at NRCS, his office has multiple times engaged in years of planning to move a community, only to have one family pull out, killing the process.
In Pecan Acres, a couple of families were reluctant to commit—distrustful that state and federal agencies would keep their promises. But when the state development office “started showing them something in black and white,” Bazile says, they decided that it was time to go. Once they’d agreed, each resident was required to fill out extensive application materials and receive an individual appraisal on their home. The process is ongoing.
The question of where to go raised other problems. After a community selection process ended with a site close to downtown New Roads, the deal fell apart suddenly when the landowner decided to pull the property off the market. That site would have allowed the residents, most of whom are elderly and can’t drive, to access stores and doctors by foot. Some residents believed that the decision was driven by racism from the town’s whiter, wealthier residents. “We basically felt that they didn’t want us there. They felt as though, yeah we may have needed help, but we weren’t good enough to be there,” said Shantina. Bazile blames New Roads city council members who saw the demographic shift resulting from the relocation as a threat to their reelection bids.
Meanwhile, at the Capitol, Louisiana was struggling to maintain its funding from NRCS as climate disasters across the country left communities fighting for emergency funding. Louisiana’s NRCS office also heard rumblings out of Washington that it was just too difficult to get all of the residents of a given subdivision to buy into the watershed protection program, that it had run its course for residential areas. Bramblett says that his office has indeed been considering a policy that would formalize the program’s focus on agricultural lands, but that policy is currently on hold.
As for the people of Pecan Acres, they have selected an alternative location in a stretch of farmland off LA-10—a long, narrow strip where homes will occupy a single block, separated by a central lawn in the middle. For the street, residents selected the name Heron Way, for the neighborhood, Audubon Estates, after they quickly rejected the idea of reusing the name Pecan Acres. The new homes are currently being designed, with construction expected to be completed in 2021.
Some residents are concerned that the architect will go with wooden-frame cottage-style homes they’ve seen mock-ups of, rather than the brick ranch-style of their current homes. Some are worried about potential delays to the program—the construction completion date was pushed back by a few months in September. Others are worried about what will happen if Republican nominee for governor, Eddie Rispone, who has campaigned on a promise to cut taxes and protect oil and gas, is elected on November 16. (The Office of Community Development says it has no concerns about a potential Rispone governorship affecting the process.) Regardless, Bazile says that residents “really want to see the shovel in the dirt.”
Sophie Kasakove is a freelance reporter covering the housing and climate crises. She is based in New Orleans. Follow her on Twitter.