Cover Story

Raising the Stakes

by Mary Tutwiler

Residents of Delcambre and Erath attempt to rebuild while facing confusing signals from local, state and federal officials.

Michelle and Matt Bowen have been remodeling their house for the past five months. Matt handles the carpentry, wiring and plumbing when he's home from his offshore job. Michelle stains molding, paints walls and sells Avon in her spare time. Their sons Matt Jr. and Mitchell ride their bikes and skateboards on the newly poured white concrete slab where the Bowens park their cars. Michelle's roses are blooming, and the family hopes to move back in the first of June. The house almost looks exactly like it did last September ' except now it's elevated 11 feet in the air on a forest of steel pillars.

The Bowens' house in the fishing village of Delcambre flooded up to the roofline in Hurricane Rita's storm surge. The family isn't taking any more chances with nature. They collected their flood insurance money and used it for steel pilings to raise their house on North President Street 16 feet above sea level. "We'll never get water again," Michelle says.

The residents of Delcambre and Erath have been waiting for six months for new base flood elevation requirements from FEMA. Flood Insurance Rate Maps dictate how high a structure needs to be above sea level ' the base flood elevation ' in order to be eligible for flood insurance. The Bowens, who returned to Delcambre in mid-October as soon as the schools reopened, couldn't remain in FEMA limbo any longer. The family of four was living in a camper next to their drowned house when their insurance company contacted them in early November. "Once we knew the insurance company was going to pay," Michelle says, "we started fixing it. Then we found out we had [additional] insurance to lift the house. That's when we really decided to stay."

Delcambre straddles the parish line between Iberia and Vermilion parishes, and flood elevation requirements are different for each parish. Delcambre has been following a 2003 FEMA flood map, which cites three different elevations ' 9, 10 and 11 feet ' depending on where a house is located in the town. An earlier 1983 map had all of Delcambre listed at 11 feet. Vermilion Parish, where Erath is located, hasn't received a new FEMA flood map since 1983, and the base flood elevation is 11 feet throughout the town.

In Erath, for instance, which is mostly 6 feet above sea level, houses built after 1983 needed to be built up 5 feet to meet the 11-foot requirement for purchasing flood insurance. Older homes, often built just a foot above the ground, or brick on slab, were grandfathered in. Homeowners could purchase flood insurance, but premiums are higher for homes more at risk.

Before Rita hit, Delcambre aldermen regularly granted flood variances to new homebuilders, allowing them to build lower than the requirements. "We thought we were helping them out," former Delcambre Mayor and Alderman Leo Delcambre says. "It's more expensive to build high. But it turns out we have been hurting them. There was one guy we wouldn't give one to. He's shaking my hand today."

Delcambre Mayor Carol Broussard was also in favor of the variances. After a 2005 town hall meeting, he told The Independent Weekly that a house raised 6 feet should not be built right next door to a house raised 3 feet. Neighborhoods have architectural continuity in a well-planned town, he explained. Today, his attitude has changed. "You have to go with FEMA, or they won't come next time," he says.

FEMA, however, has been slow to issue new flood elevations. The delay has hampered rebuilding, frustrating homeowners and government officials in Delcambre and Erath. Residents don't know if they will be able to afford additional insurance required by mortgage companies, and local officials don't know what building height to enforce. Adding to this climate of uncertainty, Delcambre town aldermen considered adopting an 11-foot across-the-board building height as part of the town's code. Broussard initially feared residents would not return and rebuild if they had to elevate to 11 feet. Meanwhile, Matt Bowen decided to let the storm surge tell him how high to build. "At 11 feet, he figured we still would have gotten water," Michelle says. "That's why he chose 16 feet." From that height, the back deck of the Bowens' house overlooks the Delcambre docks, where shrimp boats anchor and the breeze blows salty out of the south.

Over on Main Street, E.J. Segura has only raised his house 4 feet. The 73-year-old retired shrimper says he got a building permit from city hall. "They didn't tell me how high I had to go," he says, "but after they gave me the permit, they told me I had to go higher. I can't. I wouldn't be able to go up and down [the steps]. I doubt I'll be able to get flood insurance. I'll just have to gamble."

His house, one of only two on his block where residents have returned, fits into the streetscape. A block behind him, a tiny cottage sits atop a 5-foot dirt mound ' another way to raise a house above base flood level ' and looks like a toy house on top of a hill. One more block away, Leo Delcambre has raised his wooden house more than 12 feet. "One good thing," Delcambre says, "is my flood insurance is less now. It was $400 and something, now it's $200 and something."

In February, the architectural team from the Louisiana Recovery Authority held a week-long charrette at Jefferson Island to plan for the recovery of Delcambre and Erath. Project leader and urban planner Andres Duany developed an outline for waterfront improvements along Bayou Carlin in Delcambre. The thrust of the proposed improvements is to dredge a marina connected to the bayou through frequently flooded sections on the east side of town, supplying safe harbor for shrimp boats and pleasure craft. Houses that formerly occupied the high-risk eastern area would be demolished. The newly dredged canals would also provide drainage for the less flood-prone western half of Delcambre. And the attraction of boat slips with access to Vermilion Bay's rich recreational fishing would drive economic development for a town that was suffering the demise of the local shrimping industry.

The plan never gained much traction during the charrettes. But after a month of reflection, Delcambre Mayor Carol Broussard sent out a letter on March 6 inviting residents to a town meeting. He proposed purchasing all the residential property in the eight square blocks along Bayou Carlin identified by Duany, demolishing the houses and excavating a marina. "The town is moving forward on this ambitious plan before some private investor comes in and tries to purchase property at below market value," Broussard wrote.

Residents met March 21 at a standing-room-only gathering at Vanderbilt Hall. Broussard opened the town hall meeting with a vision of prosperity for the small town, where waterfront shops, boat slips, a new Shrimp Festival building and recreational facilities would draw tourists and boat owners to a community similar to Cypremort Point. But his rosy outlook has a dark underbelly. "If the town doesn't do something soon," he said, "with the next storm, this town is over with. No government, no police."

The incentive for residents to sell their homes and land to the town is federal money through the Hazard Mitigation Program offered by the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Homes in frequently flooded areas would be demolished, and no permanent structure would ever be built in these designated green zones. Shane Rauh, hazard mitigation officer under the Louisiana Military Office of Homeland Security, says the program will offer pre-Rita fair market value, based on an appraisal. The homeowner will receive 75 percent of the total cost of buying out his or her home, which includes the appraised value of the property, plus the cost of professional services, an abstract, an appraisal, legal fees and demolition. The homeowner will be responsible for the remaining 25 percent of the project, but there may be another pool of money, possibly a community block grant, to provide the match.

There are several caveats. If a homeowner received a flood insurance check and spent it on repairing his house, he will be reimbursed, but if the check went to pay off the mortgage or for any other expense, that amount would be deducted from the buyout.

The March 21 meeting caused a stir. Many people in the audience were suspicious that Broussard was using scare tactics in order to acquire land cheaply, and rumors were rampant in the room that an unnamed developer was going to make a lot of money. For those who wanted to sell, residents claimed the money wasn't going to be enough to start over. Land at higher elevations north of the east-west Hwy. 14, which connects New Iberia, Delcambre, Erath and Abbeville, is worth far more than the weather-beaten houses and low-lying land of Delcambre.

Some property owners, like Jamie Rodger, were intrigued with the idea. Her property is just adjacent the buy-out area. "I can keep my apartments and turn them into a little hotel next to the marina," she muses. But for everyone confronting the next storm season, the future is a roll of the dice. "What if we get hit again this summer? I could wind up with nothing," she says.

Erath has flooded four times in the past 20 years. "Most of the people in town are on their third flood," says Mayor George Dupuis. "We had a flood event in 1984, the early 1990s, Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, then Rita's storm surge." According to Dupuis, every resident in the town who had flood insurance has applied to raise his house. FEMA, through a clause in its flood insurance policy, will pay up to $30,000 to raise houses out of the path of future flooding.

More than 50 households in Erath have already been elevated, and house elevation companies are doing brisk business. All over town, small houses rise on 3- and 4-foot tall obelisk-shaped pilings. Then there are some homeowners like Jerry Fletcher, who says although he is planning to file an ICC claim to pay for raising his house, he's "not in the mood to play with FEMA right now." Instead, Fletcher has bought 20 hydraulic jacks and 480 cinderblocks that he will stack himself, raising the house on concrete and reinforced cinderblock piers to about 6 feet off the ground ' 14 feet above sea level. Fletcher's original house exterior was brick, but he stripped off the bricks and installed a textured siding that will help make it possible to raise the 1,400-square-foot house.

Fletcher used to work for a lumberyard where he built and lifted fiberglass buildings. Now employed by Air Logistics, he says he got bids of $11,000 to raise his house, but decided he could do it faster and better himself, at a cost of $2,000 for materials.

How does he feel about the forecast of stronger and more frequent hurricanes in the future? "I never want to go through this again," he says. "If I flood again, I'm going to move, north of Lafayette, somewhere where they don't get water."

Duany's plan for Erath is a major subdivision north of Hwy. 14, elevated above the floodplain. Vermilion Parish already had plans to dig large retention ponds in the area, within the corporate limits of Erath, to help with drainage. Duany suggested digging a canal leading to the ponds and using the spoil from dredging to create high ground. The town could then develop the newly created land into a planned community, where anyone who wanted to accept the mitigation offer could rebuild.

Initially, Dupuis says, residents were violently against the plan. "They were burning up this telephone," he says. But after a week of listening to Duany, Dupuis came around to what he dubs "New Erath."

"Erath is dying a slow death right now," he says. "In years to come it's going to be inevitable, once your older people go on ' who is going to want to come back and build at a 12-foot elevation? What we're looking at right now is an addition to Erath, large enough for 600 homes, in the city limits, built up to base flood elevation. It could be like River Ranch, with restricted zoning and quality homes, where people wouldn't have to worry about building next to a house on stilts, or a trailer park. When I saw that, I felt like someone had taken the weight off my shoulders."

The government plan for rebuilding Delcambre and Erath, if successful, will have two distinct phases. The first is the buyout and elevation of flood-damaged homes. Second is the long-range plan to spur economic development and reconfigure new housing and drainage to mitigate future flooding. Gene Sellers, engineer for Vermilion Parish, is the consultant for the two towns in the flood mitigation and LRA rebuilding programs. Sellers is in the process of filing the application to OHSEP's Hazard Mitigation Program for buyouts in both Delcambre and Erath. Vermilion Parish has received a total of $4.2 million for mitigation in the entire parish, which includes Erath, Henry, Boston, south Abbeville, Mouton Cove, Ester, Forked Island and Pecan Island. Iberia Parish has $2.3 million for its flooded communities of Delcambre, Bull Island, Lydia and some of the outlying areas of New Iberia. The two town's letters of intent are due May 1, with the final application due Aug. 28.

Hazard mitigation money can only be used for buyouts, elevating homes or building levees around public property such as municipal buildings and schools. In Delcambre, Broussard says he has commitments from 30 residents out of approximately 60 in the eight-block area earmarked as a marina and green zone. Others, like the Bowens, Segura and Leo Delcambre, have turned down the buyout, choosing to elevate and stay in their family homes. "A lot of the holdup is people want to know exactly how much money they are going to get," Broussard says.

If the flood mitigation application is approved, Erath has identified several projects it will pursue, including building a levee around the town's housing project and finding ways to mitigate flooding at Erath's three schools, all of which were so badly damaged they didn't reopen until March 13.

In long-range planning, there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that could become New Erath. The Vermilion Parish School Board owns 50 acres north of Hwy. 14, on higher ground than the present schools. Sellers mentions the possibility of moving Erath's high school and middle school to high ground, shifting Dozier Elementary into the high school building, then building a levee around the elementary school. The $4.2 million flood mitigation grant to Vermilion Parish will pay for some projects, most notably the levee construction, with buyouts being funded on a first-come, first-served basis.

Moving people and buildings out of harm's way is a first step in the big picture of rebuilding Louisiana. The two Duany plans, which are based on a combination of drainage, flood mitigation and economic development, must wait for what Sellers characterizes as long-term funding ' the $4.2 billion President Bush has earmarked for Louisiana. The money, if it comes, will be administered by the LRA. "It's not enough for the whole state," Sellers complains, "and the wait is making the long- range recovery harder."

As residents struggle to rebuild in this confusing climate, the latest twist developed March 16, when FEMA issued a Hurricane Rita Surge Inundation and Advisory Base Flood Elevation Map for nine coastal parishes including Iberia and Vermilion. Up until that date, parish officials had been issuing building permits based on the maps they had ' which designated base flood elevation for the most part at 11 feet above sea level.

The new maps are calling for 12 feet. The mitigation funding Sellers is applying for will be tied to the parish and cities adopting the new 12-foot base flood elevation.

Anyone who has already elevated to the current base flood elevation when they received their building permit will be allowed to buy flood insurance without being penalized because they will have met the standard in place the day they received their building permits, according to FEMA spokeswoman James McIntyre.

But once the town adopts the 12-foot elevation, which could be in effect by September, a new buyer must raise the house another foot, a $4,000 proposition, or pay considerably higher insurance premiums. "That devalues property," Dupuis says. "People have already lifted their homes. Why didn't they say this before people did this? FEMA's giving them all this grief and trouble."

Editor's note: To view advisory flood maps for nine coastal parishes, visit