Terrebonne and Lafourche residents continue the long and arduous process of adapting to the ever-increasing threat that the Gulf of Mexico will inundate the community as the coast erodes, land sinks and seas rise. A Courier and Daily Comet story published earlier this week offers some lessons for the increasing number of people who will be faced in the next few decades with deciding whether to build up or move out.
Over the past three decades, federal and local governments across the U.S. poured more than $5 billion into buying tens of thousands of vulnerable properties across the country, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. FEMA offers such grants to help owners of homes that have repeatedly flooded either sell their homes and move to higher ground or stay put and elevate to reduce the risk.
Since 1989, more than $7.5 million has been spent in Terrebonne to acquire at least 65 properties, the records show. The dollar figure is ninth largest among Louisiana's 64 parishes. In Lafourche, $2.3 million was spent on about 21 properties, 17th among parishes.
More locals, however, choose to elevate. In Terrebonne, more than 400 residents have used money through the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program to elevate since 2008, costing federal taxpayers more than $53 million, records show. And FEMA spent about $5.4 million in Lafourche to have at least 35 properties elevated since 2005.
The state master plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection has for several years estimated 8,200 Terrebonne and Lafourche would qualify for such actions, but it will be up to parishes to set up a process for deciding which specific buildings would be targeted. So far, no action on that. Studies indicate that much of the two parishes will be lost regardless of whether the state's plans to fix the problem are undertaken, which makes it likely even more people will have to decide whether to elevate or leave.
A few lessons from the latest story and accompanying data:
• Officials and residents who have elevated say the process takes about four years of paperwork, red tape and coordination. That's a ridiculous delay that federal and local agencies need to shorten. Such long delays dissuade potential applicants from even trying. And they expose floodprone homes to four more hurricane seasons and four more years in which a rainstorm could swamp their houses -- again.
• Unlike a buyout, the homeowner must bear a portion of the cost to elevate, usually about 25 percent. One resident said elevating her modest home in Houma would cost about $8,000 out of pocket. Officials say that cost is too high for many locals, who sometimes opt against participating because they can't afford it.
• Buyouts pose problems too. In some cases, FEMA offers owners so little for their house that it won't come anywhere near the cost of buying a new one in a less flood-prone area. One reason for such a low value: The owner's current house is prone to flooding.
Congress and FEMA need to fix these and other problems that emerge from the current program and pave the way for a smoother process for those who will face such decisions across Louisiana's coast and elsewhere. Some efforts are included in proposals to reform the National Flood Insurance Program, which itself is a mess. It's time for action.
Editorials represent the opinion of this newspaper and not any single individual.