Leery of the levees

Damon Randazzo didn’t want to go back. Watching his Braithwaite home flood twice in seven years — first in Hurricane Katrina and, again, last year in Hurricane Isaac — was enough. Randazzo had his sights set on someplace drier, maybe the north shore.

But his wife, Monica, insisted. Even though their house would need to be demolished and rebuilt 23 feet in the air, Monica wanted to return to the tiny Plaquemines Parish community her family has called home for more than a century.

“She’s going to live in there,” Randazzo said, pointing to the house last week where a construction crew was installing walls and hauling debris. “I’m going to live in my truck.”

Like many people in Plaquemines Parish and particularly in Braithwaite, one of the areas hardest hit by last year’s storm, Randazzo is wary. Before they return, residents want assurance they will be greeted by a stronger levee system and affordable flood insurance.

But as Randazzo shoves aside those concerns and rebuilds, many of his neighbors have decided to wait.

“I really don’t know what to do. No one seems to know,” Randazzo’s mother-in-law Cynthia Miller said. “We’re just waiting to see what the parish will do.”

Recovery has been uneven in Plaquemines Parish, where nearly 3,000 residences were damaged in Isaac.

In Ironton, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, nearly everyone has returned.

“When I came back down here, there were two graves on the levee. I had grass and marsh, snakes and everything all in the yard,” said James Compton, who has lived in the unincorporated, mostly African-American community for 40 years.

Today, there’s no sign of last year’s devastation. “Everybody is back.”

Across the river in Braithwaite Park, no one is.

Miller said she’s afraid to rebuild in the neighborhood because the parish levee still is insufficient to protect the area from the type of storm surge that swamped the community with eight feet of water from the Breton Sound last August. A Braithwaite Park couple died in the storm and more than a hundred people had to be rescued by boat.

“It’s such a beautiful place to raise a family,” said Miller, who had lived there for more than four decades before the storm carried her to Chalmette. “I felt protected there. I felt comfortable.”

Floodwater rose into the attic of Miller’s single-story, ranch-style home, a few feet higher than it had exactly seven years earlier during Katrina. Powerful storm surge cut through brick walls in homes nearby, leaving gaping holes in what once were family kitchens and dens. The nonfederal back levee was intentionally breached to allow water to drain out of the parish after the storm.

“It was devastating for that community. I don’t know if we’ll see it come back for many years,” Parish President Billy Nungesser said. “My heart is broken at not being able to do things quicker, better, faster.”

The parish has begun construction to raise its levee from 8½ feet to 12½ feet, a project that will take at least three years, Nungesser said.

Even after it is raised, the east bank levee won’t be recognized or funded by the federal government. Nungesser said the parish is building it to federal standards with the hope of “backing it in” to the federal system.

“Right now, a Category 1 hitting us the right way floods that area again and that’s unacceptable,” Nungesser said. “We need three or four years without a major storm to really get these levees finished to where we can have a good chance of withstanding a major storm. This is a good year for a lot of praying and a lot of luck.”

Meanwhile, people like Jesse Schaffer IV remain in exile. Shaffer, along with his father Jesse Shaffer III, received Citizen Service Before Self Honors from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and Foundation for rescuing 120 people from the flooding last year. He is living in St. Bernard Parish.

“It’s not a good feeling,” Shaffer said. “I can’t go home.”

Schaffer isn’t convinced that the current levee project is enough to keep his home safe. Even at 12 1/2 feet, the levee would have been topped by Isaac’s nearly 14 foot storm surge.

“So it’s absolutely pointless,” Shaffer said. “It’s absolutely useless.”

Plaquemines is spending $2 billion on storm protection projects that also include raising La. 23 by several inches. The roadway, heavily trafficked by the energy industry, was impassable for weeks after Isaac. Water should drain from the main road in a few days, Nungesser said.

But those projects haven’t been enough to assuage the concerns.

“Right now, the hardware stores are running out of ‘for sale’ signs,” said Byron Marinovich, chairman of the Plaquemines Parish Council. “Everybody wants to sell stuff.”

The inventory of homes for sale in Plaquemines Parish was up 30.5 percent from May to July, compared with the same three months in 2012, before Hurricane Isaac struck.

The push to sell in Plaquemines is in contrast to what’s happening in every other market in the metro area, where the numbers of homes for sale has decreased, Latter & Blum President Richard Haase said.

Meanwhile, a federal program that offers $150,000 grants to homeowners who elevate their houses has drawn about 350 applications, said Benny Puckett, Plaquemines Parish Fair Housing Coordinator, who is running the program.

“I’m surprised that there’s not more,” Puckett said. “With the number of homes that were inundated, we think that 350 is a low number.”

Some homeowners have been paralyzed by the fear that they will rebuild homes they won’t be able to afford, Puckett said. The Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, aimed at stabilizing the National Flood Insurance Program, likely will mean higher insurance premiums across coastal Louisiana.

Under the rules, older homes would no longer be grandfathered into the National Flood Insurance Program at lower rates. The law also would eliminate subsidized insurance rates for certain areas.

In coastal Louisiana, homeowners say those changes would cause their flood insurance bills to skyrocket.

“That’s the biggest thing hovering over us right now,” Marinovich said. “It’s encouraging people to move out of here.”

Randazzo raised his home 23.3 feet above sea level in anticipation of the changes. Still, he said, his flood insurance already has climbed from $400 a year to $1,700.

Bob Boudet plans to use a portion of his retirement savings to pay off the mortgage on his Myrtle Grove home so that he can drop his flood insurance if the Bigger-Waters Act is enforced.

“When we built this home 10 years ago, it conformed with everything,” Boudet said. He built his home on stilts on the water to be close to the areas where generations of his family has fished for trout and hunted ducks.

“Now they’re changing the rules. They’re changing the necessary elevation. Our upstairs was plenty high enough.”

Congress has agreed to delay the rate increase for one year. It’s unclear when or if it will be implemented.

“It’s not surprising that you’ll have some people that will say, ‘I’ll go across the lake or across the great flood wall of St. Bernard,’ ” Puckett said. “At some point, you get tired of the fight.”

But Randazzo is prepared for his small community to grow even smaller. He has learned to embrace a much quieter Braithwaite and a new unobstructed view of the Mississippi River.

“We’re going to have a big old party up here if a hurricane hits.”