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Insurances woes in coastal Louisiana make hurricane recovery difficult

Jonathan Foret of Houma, La., is still waiting on a contractor to fix his kitchen roof nearly a year after Hurricane Ida struck.
Debbie Elliott/NPR
Jonathan Foret of Houma, La., is still waiting on a contractor to fix his kitchen roof nearly a year after Hurricane Ida struck.

HOUMA, La. — The scars from last year's Hurricane Ida seem fresh – a strip mall grocery store is abandoned, its glass front knocked out; signposts and gas station awnings are ripped away; faded blue tarps cover buildings.

"The downtown area really took a beating," says Jonathan Foret, executive director of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center in Houma, a town of about 30,000 southwest of New Orleans. He points to boarded up historic storefronts and missing roofs.

Foret is surveying the lingering damage on a drive to see his insurance agent. He's among tens of thousands of Louisiana homeowners scrambling to find new property insurance in the midst of a new Atlantic hurricane season. Most major companies have quit covering the coast, and now smaller firms are going under after Louisiana was hit with two major hurricanes in the last two years.

A grocery storefront blown out by Hurricane Ida last year stands abandoned in a Houma, La., strip center.
/ Debbie Elliott/NPR
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Debbie Elliott/NPR
A grocery storefront blown out by Hurricane Ida last year stands abandoned in a Houma, La., strip center.

Foret says the insurance shakeup just exacerbates an already slow-going disaster recovery.

"It's actually had more of a compounding effect of driving by those things and seeing them broken and destroyed every day," he says. "It's become more depressing than I thought it would be."

His own home is still in need of repairs – a tarp covers his kitchen roof awaiting a contractor, which are hard to come by. Now he's trying to iron out this complication with his insurance agent, Tracee Bennett at La-Terre Insurance Agency.

He hands her envelopes that have come from a new company, asking her if they're paid up. Bennett tells him his coverage is now with the state-run Louisiana Citizen's Property Insurance Corporation.

"We still have people with damage from Ida, so if you have an open claim or damage that you're still repairing, Citizen's is the only option that we have," she says.

Insurance agent Tracee Bennett scrambled to help hundreds of customers find new property insurance when their providers went under after 2 years of major hurricane strikes in Louisiana.
/ Debbie Elliott/NPR
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Debbie Elliott/NPR
Insurance agent Tracee Bennett scrambled to help hundreds of customers find new property insurance when their providers went under after 2 years of major hurricane strikes in Louisiana.

Her office has been overwhelmed trying to help hundreds of clients like Foret who have either had their insurance companies go bankrupt or not renew policies on the coast.

"I've been in insurance since I can remember, and this is truly the low point of where I've seen it," Bennett says.

"It's a crisis," says Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon.

And one he says that's close to what happened in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the state. Most major national firms quit offering wind insurance in South Louisiana back then. So the state turned to some 30 regional firms to fill the gap.

But after $22 billion in losses from Category 4 hurricanes Laura in 2020 and Ida last year, it was just too much for some companies to handle.

"Unfortunately, a half-dozen of those have now gone into receivership," Donelon says.

Even the insurance commissioner is not immune. Donelon and his wife are among the 140,000 property owners who lost their policies and had to find new coverage. He says about half of those policies were taken over by other firms. But the burden is falling to Citizen's — the state-run insurer of last resort.

"They're absorbing it, but it ain't pretty," he says. "They are being inundated."

He predicts Citizen's will have tripled its number of policies by the end of the year. And those government policies are more expensive than private insurers, whose rates have also increased. Adding to the pain, flood premiums through the National Flood Insurance Program are also going up.

Donelon says legislation passed earlier this year will require insurance companies to have more capital to operate in Louisiana, which should prevent another wave of liquidations. He says it's vital to both the state and national economies to have solvent companies willing and able to write policies here.

Damage from Hurricane Ida lingers in neighborhoods around Houma, La.
/ Debbie Elliott/NPR
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Debbie Elliott/NPR
Damage from Hurricane Ida lingers in neighborhoods around Houma, La.

"Coastal Louisiana is burdened more than any other part of the country because we really do have a working coast," he says, pointing to oil and gas extraction, port activity, and the seafood industry.

"We have to support those folks," Donelon says. "I do believe that we can meet that challenge with the private sector although it will become expensive."

Houma insurance agent Bennett says her customers are feeling the pain.

"I can tell you down here it has been crippling," she says. "It's daunting."

At minimum, the new coverage is adding a few hundred dollars to mortgages.

Houma is a mostly working-class town in Terrebonne Parish – a region threaded with bayous that lead to the Gulf of Mexico on its southern end. The median household income is about $45,000 a year compared to about $65,ooo for the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Foret says that doesn't leave a lot of wiggle room to cope with the higher insurance costs, layered with inflation, the hurricane recovery, and the ongoing threat from climate change, which includes more frequent and intense hurricanes and rising sea levels.

"We're in it," says Foret. "Like we're in it in a way that it is going to prevent people from being able to live along the coast."

Climate migration is a politically loaded conversation. But it's been happening gradually with each catastrophic event. Foret has seen it in his own family. His father grew up in the Cocodrie community on the Gulf, then moved farther up Bayou Terrebone to the town of Chauvin when he married. Foret, now father to a toddler, has migrated even farther north to Houma.

"What if it's a part of our culture that we migrate away from the rising waters?" he asks.

You can see evidence of migration away from far south Terrebonne Parish, where schools and fire stations remain out of commission. Scores of homes are abandoned and look just like they did a week after Ida struck – roofs torn off and furniture scattered in the wreckage.

Alex Kolker, a professor at LUMCON, the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie, says the higher costs of clean-up, rebuilding and now insuring could transform these towns.

"I think it makes these areas much, much harder to live in and harder to have the kind of community where people would want to live," Kolker says. "So I think you look at the possibility of climate migration and people moving elsewhere."

Kolker says what's happening here should be a wake-up call.

"The real issue is it's not just a few isolated people in rural Terrebonne Parish," he says. "It's that this could be happening to so many people around the country in the not too distant future."

FEMA trailers set up on a gravel lot south of Houma provide shelter for people displaced by Hurricane Ida, including residents of a public housing complex that was condemned.
/ Debbie Elliott/NPR
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Debbie Elliott/NPR
FEMA trailers set up on a gravel lot south of Houma provide shelter for people displaced by Hurricane Ida, including residents of a public housing complex that was condemned.

Fannie Celestine's experience after Hurricane Ida shows how people get displaced from their communities in a disaster. Her public housing apartment in Houma was condemned after Ida. She's 59 and lost just about all of her belongings.

"It's kind of hard to talk about it without crying," she says.

Because of a housing shortage near the coast, Celestine lived for months in a hotel 100 miles away in Lafayette before moving into a FEMA trailer closer to home. It's on an isolated gravel field away from town, with no public transportation. She doesn't have a car.

"It's a place to stay, but I'm from Houma," she says. "And I would like to go back to where I'm from."

She's tired of depending on relatives to get her to the doctor or shopping, and longs to get back to ordinary living.

"Like go the store and make groceries, or walk around in the mall," says Celestine. "That would mean a lot. But what can we do?"

Foret is also looking for a return to normalcy. And he spots a literal sign of it arriving on the back of a tractor-trailer rig.

"Look — it's a McDonald's sign," he says. "We can't get insurance but, look, they're replacing the golden arches."

After nearly a year of seeing a hurricane-mangled golden arches on the corner, this repair gives him a glimmer of hope that things will get better.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.