Ricco Wheat Sr. couldn’t contain his disgust as laborers carted moldy Sheetrock and waterlogged furniture out of his house in LaPlace on Wednesday.
In 2012, Hurricane Isaac flooded the house on Sawgrass Drive. In 2021, Hurricane Ida sent storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain rushing inside yet again. He won’t be there for the next one, he swore.
“I’m not coming back,” Wheat said. “A lot of people aren’t coming back.”
As St. John the Baptist Parish’s recovery begins, homeowners in LaPlace are increasingly faced with tough questions about whether to remain and rebuild, or to flee before they’re cursed with another messy and costly disaster.
Even before the storm, the parish’s population was on the decline, down 7.5% between the 2010 and 2020 census. It now has 42,000 people.
Officials promise that a $760 million planned levee on Lake Pontchartrain’s western shore will prevent more flooding, but some LaPlace residents don’t want to wait for its scheduled spring 2024 completion date. Just how many pick up stakes will have long-term implications for a community that once beckoned as a suburban alternative to New Orleans.
It’s not hard to find homeowners in the part of LaPlace near La. 51 and Interstate 10 who’ve endured an unholy trinity of disasters: Isaac, a monster tornado in 2016, and now Ida. They are disaster veterans who know how to tarp a roof.
“It’s not our first rodeo,” said Tonia Schnyder, who represents hard-hit District 6 on the parish council. “Unfortunately, they know the routine.”
But even some of the people who thought they’d seen it all were gobsmacked by Ida.
Hurricane Isaac flooded 7,000 homes in St. John, and most people in the parish believe that Ida was worse.
An initial assessment of 2,500 structures revealed that 60% of those sustained major damage and 10% were outright destroyed, according to the parish.
Another unofficial tally are the mounds of demolition debris outside of houses in LaPlace. Some are as high as the houses they once filled.
Water marks are a third metric. After Isaac, the water line on Frances Cosme’s walls in the River Forest neighborhood came up to her shin. This time, it came up to her thigh.
“Ida was much, much worse,” Cosme said. “We lost so much more.”
Hurricane Ida’s winds caused wind and rain damage everywhere. But in the part of LaPlace near Lake Pontchartrain, residents were also socked with water whipping in from the lake.
As Hurricane Ida pounded the 1811 Kid/Ory Historic House in LaPlace, its caretakers spent a very long night at the museum.
For more than 50 years, officials have touted a levee as the answer to St. John’s woes. But it wasn’t fully funded until 2018 — largely as a result of the outrage over Isaac.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still calculating Ida’s storm surge. But according to preliminary assessments, it does seem that the long-planned levee would have blocked the surge, according to Ricky Boyett, a spokesman for the Corps.
Meanwhile, the storm appears to have done little damage to the levee project itself — in large part because construction had yet to begin. Instead, the corps was building access roads over impassable, swampy land and stockpiling fill material.
Boyett said that while the corps is heavily involved in relief and recovery operations across Louisiana, it’s forging ahead with work on the levee.
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“We’re still tracking on the same schedule,” Boyett said.
Much of the project is planned for geography that’s never had any type of levee before, including open water. This year, the Corps plans to start building a test section.
While the official word is that the project’s timeline hasn’t slipped, some parish residents wonder if it could actually be accelerated.
Hotard, who met with top corps officials and President Joe Biden after Hurricane Ida, said she’s in “daily” talks about the project. At a minimum, the storm will allow the levee’s designers to fine-tune their plans, she said.
“Now they get to see, really, what a storm can do,” she said. “I believe this may even allow them to make improvements to the levee that they were actually going to construct, because they got to see some real devastation in real time.”
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Hotard’s own home was damaged. She urged residents to stick it out.
“Levee protection is coming,” she said. “We know that it’s tough when you’re gutting your home out. All you can think about in that moment is, ‘I never want to do this again.’ However, I believe that the community spirit we have in St. John is unmatched.”
Still, the levee’s promise rings hollow for some residents who’ve heard it all before. Man-made climate change is making the Gulf of Mexico a more dangerous place, and they worry that before the levee is completed, another storm will wreck their properties for a third time.
It’s the dread of waiting for that next storm, rather than the frustration of gutting and rebuilding, that makes some residents want to go.
Wheat might move to Texas. Another LaPlace resident, Jerome Gooden, said he might go to Gonzales.
But Cosme and her husband haven’t decided what comes next. She still thinks about the storm surge rushing against her home’s northern wall.
“A lot of our neighbors say, ‘we’re gonna just sell, because we’ve been promised the levee and we’re just waiting and waiting,’” she said. “It’s just a shame.”
Oscar Velasquez said he moved to LaPlace in 2002 because he was tired of dealing with flooding in Metairie.
Over the past decade, many St. John the Baptist Parish residents found a reason to leave.