Benny watched his house drift away. Now, his community wants better storm protection
At the moment, Tammy and Benny Alexie are staying in a cream-colored house that overlooks the Mississippi River delta. The house survived the flooding of Hurricane Ida with minimal damage because it stands on stilts. An expansive deck in the back is covered with an insect net on all four sides, a long wooden table in the middle, and a propane grill in the corner where the Alexies have been making their meals for the past six weeks. Their three children and two grandchildren are staying with them.
Tiny frogs make occasional appearances on the netting, looking out toward the setting sun. The Alexies look on, too, admiring that bayou sunset as if it is their first.
"It's like a vacation home," Tammy says. "Except this isn't a vacation."
She steps out on the side porch to stand next to her husband Benny, a fisherman. She rubs his back as they both look over to the property next door with tears welling up in their eyes. It was the home Benny had known his entire life; Tammy had lived there at least since they were married over 35 years ago. Now, that home is reduced to rubble.
When Hurricane Ida plowed through Barataria, an unincorporated part of Jefferson Parish about an hour south of New Orleans, the storm blew one of the houses on the Alexies' property several yards from its original foundation into the middle of the road. One wall is completely missing.
"I watched my house float away," Benny says. He had hunkered down on his neighbor's property — the same building he now resides in and speaks from. His 19-year-old son, Benny Alexie Jr., stayed too.
The Alexies are waiting for flood insurance claims. Tammy says she has been spending hours on the phone with insurance agents every day.
"Sometimes it feels like a dream, but I look out the window, and it's not a dream," Tammy says.
On days when the water is calm, it is difficult to imagine a powerful hurricane swept through this area about two months ago, causing power outages across southern Louisiana, and ultimately for more than a million people across eight states. But steps away from the Alexies' temporary home, the dirt road is still covered in water, and every house within sight appears to have suffered some kind of damage: roofs are caved in, a boat is wedged into the branches of a tree, debris is piled high on front yards as children too young to be driving navigate around the rubble in golf carts.
Benny's fishing boat is anchored just behind his property, swaying gently with the water. He's been a fisherman for 40 years.
"My boat is all I have left," he says.
Born and raised in Barataria, he has experienced hurricanes many times. Hurricane Ida was different.
"We've never seen devastation like this before," Benny says.
'This amount of human suffering, I've never seen in this area'
It's an assessment shared by many in the region. Timothy Kerner Jr. is mayor of the neighboring town to the east, Jean Lafitte.
"This had such a disastrous effect on this community," Kerner says. "And so many people hurt. I mean, this amount of human suffering, I've never seen in this area." The Alexies are not technically Kerner's constituents, but Kerner claims them and all in the greater Lafitte area. "They're my people too."
Kerner's roots run deep in this bayou community. His father, Timothy Kerner Sr., was mayor of Jean Lafitte for seven terms before becoming a Louisiana state representative in 2020. In fact, a Kerner has held the top office of Jean Lafitte since 1888.
The current mayor feels the federal government has historically neglected his community, which is increasingly vulnerable to storms intensified by climate change like Hurricane Ida — and increasingly dependent on human intervention.
The levee system built by the federal government to protect New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina served its purpose — it prevented catastrophic flooding inside the city when Hurricane Ida hit. But people outside of the federal levee system, like the Alexies, weren't as lucky.
There is a state-run ring levee system around the Lafitte area, but it is a much smaller system that did not prevent flooding during Hurricane Ida. Kerner and his father have long been asking the federal government to update their levee system so that their people can be protected as well as those in New Orleans.
"When the federal government said, 'You know what? These guys aren't worth it,' and they put the giant levee systems around all of us, and then put the largest pump in the world 2 1/2 miles [away], that's the government saying we don't want you here anymore," Kerner says.
That pump station Kerner is talking about is called the West Closure Complex. It's a giant concrete structure just north of Jean Lafitte. Its purpose is to process rain and stormwater, which eventually flows south towards Kerner's town and surrounding areas. Kerner believes that during Hurricane Ida, the floodwater management system may have helped New Orleans communities at the expense of his own.
"That pump is what made the difference," he says. "It flooded homes."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who engineered the levee system and pump station, say they are still studying what impact the pump had on the Lafitte area. Ricky Boyett, chief of public affairs for the USACE's New Orleans District, told NPR that with any civil works project like the pump station, the Army Corps considers the "potential impacts" or "unintended consequences" on surrounding communities.
He also commented on the viability of a federal levee system. "The cost of bringing the levee system [through] Jean Lafitte would have been pretty significant, simply because of the distance as well as the geography," Boyett said.
After Hurricane Ida first hit, President Biden and other administration officials visited southern Louisiana. Kerner says he met Biden, who he says was sympathetic to his concerns.
One of President Biden's senior advisers, Cedric Richmond, told NPR: "We firmly believe that a solid investment and hardening the infrastructure right now while investing in and tackling climate change is both the short-term and long-term answer." When asked about federally funded relocation, Richmond said the administration had not considered it.
No satisfying long-term solutions
While the jury is still out on if or how much the West Enclosure Complex pumps contributed to flooding in southern Louisiana's bayou communities, in the long term, Jean Lafitte and its surrounding areas are threatened by more than a pump station. The great irony of levee systems in vulnerable areas like southern Louisiana is that they serve as a short-term solution to imminent environmental threats — but also contribute to those threats.
"By preventing flooding [with levees], we also prevent sediment from basically nourishing these coastal wetlands," says Torbjorn Tornqvist, a professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences at Tulane University. "And that sediment is really badly needed to allow the land surface to basically grow vertically. And that is necessary because sea level is rising, the land is sinking."
In other words, levees are accelerating the loss of Louisiana's wetlands.
Tornqvist adds that dredging and canal systems put in place by oil companies are another major force that has eroded the land. Mayor Kerner agrees with that, and wants to hold the federal government accountable.
"The reason why we're in this position is not only because of global warming, it's also because of manmade decisions, bad decisions," Kerner says. "Putting the river levees along the coast without any plan to feed it, let in tens of thousands of oil companies, dredge, and wreak havoc on our coast, [let] saltwater intrusion destroy our coast."
While Tornqvist says he is "not incredibly optimistic about the long-term sustainability of this coastal area," he does think some solutions could help extend the lifespan of southern Louisiana. Tornqvist is part of a group of scientists who have helped research a river diversion project that Louisiana's state government is currently reviewing.
If all goes as planned, the Army Corps of Engineers would make a hole in one of the levees in the Mississippi River with the goal of carrying sediment into Barataria Bay, helping to rebuild wetlands that have drowned beneath the sea. The $2 billion project would be financed with money paid by BP after a 2010 oil spill.
But those solutions may have their own unfortunate consequences. Fishers like Benny Alexie who rely on shrimp and crab to make a living do not support this diversion project. He points out that the fresh water from the Mississippi River is going to push away the saltwater fish he has spent 40 years catching to make a living and feed his family.
Benny says he and other fishers were invited to a public hearing about this diversion project. "To me, it just seems like they already know that it's going to happen no matter what we had to say," he says.
That feeling of being forgotten is something Benny feels strongly — both as someone who lives outside federal levee protection, and as a fisherman.
"What made New Orleans is the seafood that's cooked in it, which comes from the bayou people down south," he says. "So without the bayou people down south, there is no New Orleans. Plenty of people don't realize that."
For Benny, it's not a simple ask to relocate or fish elsewhere.
"Just from working this basic area for 40 years, when I get out there, depending on the tide range, depending on the moon, I know wherever I need to be," he says. And he worries that passing on the trade of fishing that has been in his family for many generations to his son will be for naught. Yet he sees no other option.
"To me, there is nothing better to do," he says.
His wife, Tammy, nods in understanding. But she wishes Benny Jr. would choose a different profession. "I'm scared for him," Tammy says. "I'm scared to see what is going to happen for him, maybe when we're not here."
Tammy feels similarly conflicted about staying and rebuilding in Barataria altogether. "I don't know if I have the strength," she says, with tears in her eyes.
But she says Benny is determined. So for now, their plan is to wait out the result of their flood insurance claim. Their neighbor, whose house they are temporarily occupying, has told the Alexies they can stay until Christmas.
"I did not want to uproot the kids," Tammy says. "I said, 'Let's try to give them something,' not that we have anything for Christmas. Everything's gone. But we are all going to be together."
After that, the Alexies don't know where they will go.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.