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Lack Of Funds Keeps Louisiana From Buying Out Coastal Residents

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Louisiana's coast is washing away into the Gulf of Mexico. For a decade, officials tried to rebuild the coast, but now they admit they can't protect everyone who lives there. In collaboration with Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, here's Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO in New Orleans.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Ollie Williams’ double-wide trailer home is 13 feet in the air, on stilts, with a tall set of wooden stairs to reach the front door. Every time it rains, she gets the boats ready.

OLLIE WILLIAMS: We've got our canoe here, keep that out here at all times just in case we get a little tropical storm or whatever.

WENDLAND: She lives in a rural neighborhood about 30 miles northeast of New Orleans. And it wasn't like this when she was a kid. But lately, every time there's a storm, the yard floods and the canoe floats up the steps.

O. WILLIAMS: All depending on how bad the storm gets. During Isaac, we got all the way up to the second step.

WENDLAND: Wow.

O. WILLIAMS: So - and that's when we will have our aluminum boat with the motor.

WENDLAND: Two boats to escape when they need to. It's a routine. Ollie and her husband Daniel move the cars to higher ground. Inside, they grab their go bags out of the closet full of family photos and documents. The kids missed school, nearly a month of it last year. They're fed up.

O. WILLIAMS: This is where we wanted to be forever. We wanted to build our home with our family, have memories.

DANIEL WILLIAMS: Our families have been living out here since the '70s. We never got water this bad, you know.

WENDLAND: Life is tough enough without the flooding. Daniel's partially paralyzed, and they live off of his disability check. This past year, Louisiana made plans to buy out 2,400 homeowners and move people to higher ground. But without money, it's not happening yet and officials don't know if it ever will. Even if it did, the Williams wouldn't qualify. The projected flooding where they are just isn't quite bad enough. But many of Ollie's neighbors have already left. Her longtime friend, Debbie Kappes, moved after Hurricane Katrina to a single-story brick home with a big backyard 10 miles inland.

DEBBIE KAPPES: I totally wanted to be away from the water. And after that, I didn't want to be anywhere around it. I still love the beach, but I don't want to be anywhere around water where I live.

WENDLAND: Debbie and her husband were able to leave because they had money. They were retired and got big settlements from their insurance companies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Ollie and Daniel didn't qualify for that help since they didn't own their house. But they owned land, so they bought a cheap trailer home and stayed. Now, Debbie worries about them.

KAPPES: If Ollie could afford it, I know Ollie would be out of there in a heartbeat.

WENDLAND: She's kind of just waiting for the next big storm.

KAPPES: I don't even want to think about it. That poor child needs to get out of there.

WENDLAND: Researchers see this pattern all over Louisiana's coast.

ALLISON PLYER: What we've seen is not terribly unexpected.

WENDLAND: Allison Plyer's a demographer with the New Orleans Data Center.

PLYER: The residents in the coastal parishes have been slowly retreating. We found that the people who remain in the most-vulnerable areas are disproportionately elderly and poor.

WENDLAND: People like Ollie and Daniel, who can't afford to leave. And for those left behind, life gets more difficult. Plyer says, after Katrina, nearly 40 percent of the people in some places moved away and never came back. That leaves fewer services like grocery stores, schools and post offices.

PLYER: It's a very big problem for those folks, right? They don't have the neighbors that can help them if they have a severe event of any sort. Probably their way of life has significantly changed as the land is lost and people leave.

O. WILLIAMS: This used to be nothing but houses, mobile homes.

WENDLAND: Ollie drives through her neighborhood pointing to marshy woods. Old driveways lead to nowhere, just dense underbrush and trees covered in vines.

O. WILLIAMS: It's horrible. No friends back here anymore. It's so quiet. Everybody's lots are overgrown.

WENDLAND: Ollie believes it's only a matter of time before her house gets hit by a big storm. That scares her, but it also gives her a weird sense of hope that she and Daniel might get enough federal disaster money to finally move someplace safer. For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in Slidell, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONTAINE'S "FIN")

MARTIN: And you'll hear more on this story on the next episode of Reveal.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONTAINE'S "FIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.