Insurance problems along the Louisiana coast make hurricanes difficult

Jonathan Foret of Houma, La., is waiting for a contractor to fix his kitchen roof nearly a year after Hurricane Ida hit.

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Jonathan Foret of Houma, La., is waiting for a contractor to fix his kitchen roof nearly a year after Hurricane Ida hit.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

HOUMA, La. – The scars of last year’s Hurricane Ida look fresh – a thrift store has been abandoned, its windshield blown away; signs and barriers for fuel are removed; Cracked blue boards cover the building.

Jonathan Foret, director of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center in Houma, a town of about 30,000 southwest of New Orleans, said: “The urban area suffered a lot. He points to the rise in popular stores and missing roofs.

Foret is looking at the damage that is about to go to see the insurance agent. They are among thousands of Louisiana homeowners scrambling to get new home insurance amid the Atlantic hurricane season. Many large companies have stopped sheltering on the coast, and now small companies are moving to Louisiana affected by two hurricanes in the last two years.

A grocery store that was blown away by last year’s Hurricane Ida was abandoned in Houma, La., on the slopes.

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A grocery store that was blown away by last year’s Hurricane Ida was abandoned in Houma, La., on the slopes.

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Foret says the insurance shock will only add to the slow recovery.

“It’s had the added effect of driving around with those things and seeing them break down and deteriorate every day,” he says. “It’s been more frustrating than I thought.”

His house still needs repairs – the pitch for the roof of his kitchen is waiting for a contractor, which is hard to find. Now he is trying to solve the problem with an insurance agent, Tracee Bennett at La-Terre Insurance Agency.

She gives him envelopes from a new company, and asks if he has been paid. Bennett tells him that his publication is now owned by the government Louisiana Citizen’s Property Insurance Corporation.

“We’re still dealing with damage from Ida, so if you have a permit that’s visible or damage you’re repairing, Citizen is the only option we have,” he says.

Insurance agent Tracee Bennett worked hard to help hundreds of clients get new home insurance when providers were hit by 2-year hurricanes in Louisiana.

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Insurance agent Tracee Bennett worked hard to help hundreds of clients get new home insurance when providers were hit by 2-year hurricanes in Louisiana.

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His office has been busy trying to help hundreds of clients like Foret whose insurance companies have gone bankrupt or haven’t reformed the law on the coast.

“I’ve been in insurance for as long as I can remember, and this is the lowest I’ve seen it,” Bennett says.

“It’s tough,” said Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon.

And one is said to be approaching what happened in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the state. Many national companies stopped providing wind insurance in South Louisiana back then. So the government turned to 30 other local companies to fill the gap.

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

“Unfortunately, half a dozen of them have now received it,” says Donelon.

Even the insurance manager is not protected. Donelon and his wife are among 140,000 homeowners who lost their policies and had to find new coverage. It is estimated that about half of these policies were taken by other companies. But that burden falls on Citizen’s – the last state-run insurance company.

“They take it, but it’s not pretty,” he says. “They are drowning.”

He predicts that Citizens will have tripled its policies by the end of the year. And public policies are more expensive than private insurers, whose rates have increased. Adding to the pain, premiums flood through National Flood Insurance Program they are also rising.

Donelon says legislation passed earlier this year will require insurance companies to have more capital to operate in Louisiana, which should prevent further layoffs. He said it is important that all governments and countries have solvent companies that want to write policies here.

Damage from Hurricane Ida continues in areas around Houma, La.

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Damage from Hurricane Ida continues in areas around Houma, La.

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“Coastal Louisiana is more resource-intensive than any other part of the country because we have a working coast,” he says, pointing to oil and gas production, port operations, and maritime trade.

“We have to help those people,” says Donelon. “I believe we can solve this problem with the private sector even though it will be expensive.”

Insurance agent Houma Bennett says his clients are in pain.

“I’m telling you it’s been lame down here,” he says. “It’s difficult.”

Little by little, new help is adding several hundred dollars to mortgages.

Houma is the largest working-class town in Terrebonne Parish – an area that has access to the Gulf of Mexico at its southern end. The median household income is about $45,000 a year compared to $65,ooo nationally, according to the US Census Bureau.

Foret says that doesn’t leave much room for higher insurance costs, which include inflation, hurricanes, and the risk of climate change, which includes more frequent and stronger hurricanes and rising sea levels.

“That’s where we are,” says Foret. “Like we’re in such a way that it’s going to keep people from living on the beach.”

Climate change is a politically charged issue. But it has been happening gradually with each catastrophic event. Foret saw it in his own family. His father grew up in the village of Cocodrie in the Gulf, then moved to Bayou Terrebone to the town of Chauvin when he married. Foret, now the father of a toddler, has moved north to Houma.

“What if it’s part of our culture that we move away from rising water?” he asks.

You can see evidence of the exodus in southern Terrebonne Parish, where schools and fire stations are out of service. Most of the buildings have been abandoned and look much like they did a week after Ida hit – roofs torn off and furniture scattered.

Alex Kolker, professor at LUMCON, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Cocodrie, they say higher costs for clean-up, rebuilding and insurance could transform these towns.

“I think it makes these neighborhoods more difficult, more difficult to live in and have the type of people who want to live in them,” Kolker says. “So I think you’re looking at the possibility of climate migration and people moving elsewhere.”

Kolker says what is happening now should be a wake-up call.

“The real story is that it’s not just a minority of rural Terrebonne Parish,” he says. “It is likely that this will happen to many people in this country very soon.”

FEMA trailers set up on rocks south of Houma provide shelter for people displaced by Hurricane Ida, including residents of condemned public housing.

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FEMA trailers set up on rocks south of Houma provide shelter for people displaced by Hurricane Ida, including residents of condemned public housing.

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Fannie Celestine’s experience after Hurricane Ida shows how people evacuate their communities after a disaster. His public house in Houma was condemned after Ida. He is 59 years old and has lost almost all of his possessions.

He said: “It is difficult to talk about it without crying.”

Because of the lack of housing near the beach, Celestine spent several months in a hotel about 100 miles away in Lafayette before moving into a FEMA trailer near her home. It is on a rocky outcrop far from town, without public transport. He doesn’t have a car.

“It’s a place to live, but I’m from Houma,” he says. “And I want to go back to where I came from.”

He is tired of relying on family members to take him to the doctor or shopping, and he longs to return to normal life.

“Like going to the grocery store, or walking around the mall,” says Celestine. “It means a lot. But what can we do?”

Foret also wants to return to a good life. And he sees his real sign arriving at the back of the tractor trailer.

“Look – it’s a McDonald’s logo,” he says. “We can’t get insurance but, look, they’re replacing the golden pillars.”

After almost a year of seeing a golden storm around the corner, this improvement gives him hope that things will improve.