News Article

In flood-prone Lake Charles neighborhood, residents consider whether it’s time to leave

Date:Jun 14, 2021
Published in:The Advocate

LAKE CHARLES — Diadra Carmen steels herself before she opens the door, telling herself not to be afraid. Tears roll down her cheeks when she begins to step inside.

Her house is dim and gutted. Water marks roughly knee-high are visible on the outside walls. Containers of personal belongings in the laundry room are still soaked, including one holding ceramic angels given to her by her mother, wrapped in disposable diapers to keep them from breaking.

“I’m mentally and emotionally drained,” said the 64-year-old, who has lived in the Greinwich Terrace neighborhood of storm-battered Lake Charles since 1978 and has endured repeated flooding in recent years. “I’m ready to go, whether they buy it or not.”

Like others in the neighborhood, Carmen may soon be eligible for a voluntary buyout of her house. Despite her long ties to the area and affection for the place where she raised her three children, she’s become exasperated and would be ready to take the money and leave.

Others aren’t so sure. But no matter their feelings on it, a common sentiment runs through the largely African-American neighborhood: The situation should never have come to this, and many believe drainage would have been improved sooner in a wealthier part of town.

Local officials say they cannot go back and fix what was or wasn’t done in the past, and instead are now working to address flooding not only in Greinwich Terrace but throughout the city and parish at a time of climate change and intensifying storms. The buyout should certainly help if all goes according to plan, they say.

Greinwich Terrace’s story tells a larger tale about how a city develops -- and, sometimes, returns to nature in places -- particularly in low-lying Louisiana. While it is by no means an exact comparison, the saga will no doubt sound familiar to some New Orleans residents who faced uncertainty over their neighborhoods post-Katrina.

Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter, whose city was hit by two hurricanes last year, a severe winter storm in February and major flooding last month, said the drainage problems pose “a very unfair situation for a lot of people, but the buyout program is the best of a bunch of imperfect options.”

“I think that going forward, it's got to be a multi-pronged approach. It’s got to be a change in the way we develop. It's got to be more money towards maintenance, it's got to be more money towards capital projects,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we're dealing with a convergence of a multitude of issues that have been brewing for 40 years, and there are some neighborhoods that are feeling the heaviest effects of those. And it is impossible to mitigate that just in the course of even a couple of years.”

‘Back-breaker for us’

Greinwich Terrace sits at a low point in southeastern Lake Charles, next to the Kayouche Coulee waterway, nestled in a bend of the Interstate 210 loop around the city. Cars can be seen speeding past in the backdrop from certain vantage points. It was initially built to cater to military and civilian workers at a former air base nearby, said Adley Cormier, author of a book on local history called “Lost Lake Charles.”

The neighborhood resembles many others built in the post-World War II years, with modest homes of brick and siding, spacious yards and wide, suburban-style streets. The area changed dramatically over the years with the development of I-210, big box stores and other residential neighborhoods, which in turn increased flood risks.

Today residents tend to divide the neighborhood into the “Old Terrace” and the “New Terrace.” The New Terrace tends to have pricier houses less prone to flooding, though there are exceptions.

Hurricane Harvey inundated the neighborhood in 2017, while Hurricane Laura in August walloped it with wind damage like the rest of the region. Hurricane Delta around six weeks later brought another round of flooding, while heavy rain on May 17 swamped it again.

Mounds of furniture, mattresses, wallboard and insulation sit at roadsides from recently gutted houses. Some residents say they were on the verge of finally moving back into their homes after Laura and Delta only to be inundated last month.

Jerome and Brandi Guillory are living in a trailer in their front yard. They had moved into their house only five months before Laura hit and were hoping to move back inside soon, after repairs were complete.

They installed new furniture as part of their rebuild, just before their house took on a couple feet of water on May 17. They’re ready to call it quits and accept a buyout.

“That was a back-breaker for us,” said Jerome Guillory, a 47-year-old truck driver. “When the buyout thing came, we considered that as a blessing, as a sign – ‘Hey, y’all need to get out of here’.”

Others in the Old Terrace felt similarly, including Angelica Breaux, 64, who recently broke down at a public meeting on drainage when she described waiting seven hours to be rescued from her house as floodwaters rushed in last month.

Some in the New Terrace, however, said they were firmly against selling. They questioned whether they would receive enough money to buy another house at a time of an affordable housing shortage in the Lake Charles area, while older residents are reluctant to change neighborhoods and take on another mortgage.

Schuyler Olivier, 39, has fond memories of growing up in the New Terrace, where he’d walk over to the nearby coulee with friends and fish when he was a kid. His parents, 84 and 74, still live there, and he’d hate to see them leave. They recently moved back into their home after last year’s hurricanes, and while the May rains flooded their street, the water did not enter the house, which sits slightly higher than others in the area.

“It's a great place for our parents to stay,” said Olivier, a former McNeese State football player who now works at a pediatric cardiology office and lives in a nearby neighborhood with his wife and two daughters. “We don't have to worry about anything. Everyone knows everybody … And it's like, where are they going to go at this point? There's nothing here in Lake Charles to rent and/or buy within any price range.”

It may be moot, anyhow. His parents’ home may lie outside the area the buyout program will consider.

‘Too scared’

The buyout program is part of the Louisiana Watershed Initiative, which uses federal grant dollars to take homes that flood repeatedly out of circulation among a wide range of other projects. The program has $30 million set aside for Lake Charles; officials say it will be enough to buy around 100 houses in the neighborhood, out of a total of about 600.

Greinwich Terrace was picked because it fit the program’s qualifications, including its flood risk and the number of structures there. The buyouts must be in a concentrated area rather than spread piecemeal, said Jennifer Cobian, assistant planning director for Calcasieu Parish.

The neighborhood is low enough that houses there would have to be constructed at an elevation 4 feet higher if they were to be built today, she said, adding that all of those factors limit options for drainage improvements.

The type of grant being used must aim to benefit lower-income homeowners, said Pat Forbes, executive director of the state Office of Community Development, which oversees the initiative with four other state agencies.

The buyouts are voluntary. Homeowners who qualify will be offered a price per square foot based on fair market value -- plus a housing assistance amount that aims to compensate for the depressed values of their homes, allowing for another purchase in a safer area. The upper limit will be $250,000, Cobian said.

In the state’s post-Katrina Road Home program, no such extra assistance was offered. Grant amounts for buyouts or repairs were calculated on the basis of the home’s pre-storm value, and many residents in poor neighborhoods found themselves unable to afford repairs or new homes as a result. A federal judge later ruled the program was racially discriminatory.

Homes bought must remain open space in perpetuity. Local officials have not yet determined what form that will take, since they are waiting to see how the program plays out. Parks, sports fields and drainage projects have been mentioned as possibilities.

The idea is to purchase as many contiguous lots as possible, with an initial focus on those closest to the coulee, allowing for more water absorption to better protect remaining homes.

Forbes said discussions about buyouts in Greinwich Terrace were ongoing before the May floods, but after that storm, “it just became obvious that that was a place that would make sense for us to move.” It fit into the strategy underlying the watershed initiative, launched in 2018 to reduce flood risks by looking at the problem more holistically.

“The folks who live there have invested their money, their life savings, in a home that has been devalued now,” Forbes said. “And so it's just a voluntary opportunity for them to have another shot at starting to build wealth in their homes in a place where they don't have to expect flooding all the time.”

It’s too soon to put a timeframe on the program, said Forbes. Officials will hold meetings with residents, and a template based on previous such initiatives means they are not starting completely from scratch.

It can’t come soon enough for Carmen, a longtime teacher’s assistant for special needs students. With her home uninhabitable since Laura, she’s been living nearby with her daughter. She also owns another house on the same street, where she raised her children.

It pains her to see her house and the neighborhood in its current state.

“I’m too scared to risk putting money on it for it to come back and flood again,” she said outside her damaged house, the grass now growing tall. “I don’t want to go through this anymore.”