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Weeks after Ida, Bayou communities outside New Orleans' levee system still devastated

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: I'm Sarah McCammon on the bayou south of New Orleans, where just weeks ago, Hurricane Ida slammed ashore, its 150-mile-an-hour winds causing death and devastation across the region.

On this day, though, the water is calm as we skim along on an airboat with Tim Kerner, Jr. He's the mayor of a small town called Jean Lafitte. Kerner and a local tour guide have brought us to look at one part of the federal levee system built in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to protect New Orleans. This giant pump station, which looks like a concrete wall built across this section of water, is called the West Closure Complex.

How do you know when it's safe to be here?

RUSSELL: Oh, you just hope that you ain't here when they turn them on.

TIMOTHY KERNER JR: We'd be in trouble if they - (laughter).

MCCAMMON: The pump station is just a short boat ride from Jean Lafitte, home to generations of Kerners. But it's not here to protect them.

KERNER: Oh, yeah. It pumps directly to us. I mean, we are 2 1/2 miles south. So it builds up here, and then it levels out toward my community. And that's what it did this time. On the final hour, it just overtopped it and just flooded us.

MCCAMMON: Kerner says this pump, which pushes water away from New Orleans toward his town, is one of many factors putting Jean Lafitte at risk.

KERNER: The reason why we're in this position is not only because of global warming. It's also because of man-made decisions - bad decisions.

MCCAMMON: He's primarily talking about decisions made by the federal government.

KERNER: Putting the river levees along the coast without any plan to feed the coast, letting tens of thousands of oil companies dredge and wreak havoc on our coast and let saltwater intrusion destroy our coasts - when the federal government, they put the giant levee systems around all of us and then put the largest pump in the world, that's the government saying, we don't want you there anymore.

MCCAMMON: Benny Alexie is a local fisherman, and he agrees with Kerner. He says the levee system fails to protect the bayou communities outside New Orleans.

BENNY ALEXIE: What made New Orleans is the seafood that's cooked in it, which comes from the bayou people down south.

MCCAMMON: Alexie says he doesn't understand why the government wouldn't want to give his community the same protection.

B ALEXIE: Without the bayou people down south, there is no New Orleans. Plenty of people don't realize that - not even New Orleans, 'cause they don't give a [expletive] about us.

MCCAMMON: Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which designed the levee system that protects hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans, say they had to consider the needs of many communities across a large and complex region that's often inundated with water. But Oliver Houck, a law professor at Tulane University who specializes in environmental law, says man-made activity like the levee is only compounding other natural vulnerabilities.

OLIVER HOUCK: The land is sinking. It's sinking fast. Relative sea level rise has never been greater. They'll rise more with climate change. The storms are worse. And now, on top of it, it's all the things that we've done to sink the land. We couldn't have murdered the coast more than if that had been our intention.

MCCAMMON: Coastal communities like Tim Kerner's town and the surrounding area, which includes about 10,000 people, are becoming increasingly vulnerable to storms like Ida.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SLOSHING)

MCCAMMON: As we walked around the area, we saw boats lodged in tree branches, giant debris piles lining front lawns, and home after home missing roofs and walls. Kerner says virtually everyone in the community suffered damage. A full assessment is still underway. But he says, so far, about a third of homes are uninhabitable.

KERNER: It's very tightknit community, so you have family members or friends that they're staying at. Some people are saying they have FEMA assistance and hotels. But that's another big problem 'cause a lot of hotels are damaged and a lot of them are completely booked in the New Orleans area.

MCCAMMON: Among those relying on the kindness of neighbors are fisherman Benny Alexie and his wife, Tammy, who lost their home to Ida.

TAMMY ALEXIE: I asked him to move a little further up the road, somewhere a little more not surrounded 'cause this scares me.

MCCAMMON: While Benny would go out on the water, Tammy took care of their home in Barataria, near Lafitte in Jefferson Parish. It's a small bayou community, dominated by fishing and tourism, made up of small strips of land surrounded by water and marsh. There's less and less land all the time, though. Louisiana has lost more than 2,000 square miles over the last century. That erosion of the coastline leaves people at risk from major storms like Ida.

B ALEXIE: We've been through a bunch of hurricanes before. But I'm 56 years old. And this area, we have never seen devastation like this before.

MCCAMMON: Tammy and Benny are safe for now. Their three adult children and two grandchildren are staying with them in a spacious vacation home that belongs to their next-door neighbor while they wait for insurance claims to come through. But Tammy says she tries not to look out the window because next door is the rubble that was once their home.

T ALEXIE: This is like a vacation home, but it's not a vacation. We come out here and look at this and go - it's, like, unreal.

MCCAMMON: Just before Ida hit, Tammy, her daughters and grandchildren evacuated. But Benny stayed behind with their 19-year-old son, watching through the window of their neighbor's house as the water washed their home off its foundation, into the edge of the road.

B ALEXIE: I don't regret staying at all.

MCCAMMON: I think some people would be - that would be so hard to watch. Why are you glad you saw it?

B ALEXIE: Well, to me, I don't wonder what happened. I was here to witness it.

MCCAMMON: Benny has been a fisherman since his teens - a trade passed down through generations of men in his family. That much history in a place brings the kind of deep knowledge he says would be impossible to replicate anywhere else. He knows exactly where to fish depending on the tides and the phase of the moon.

T ALEXIE: Oh, that's my thing. We just had this.

MCCAMMON: Benny and Tammy sit together at a long wooden table on the deck. She's sipping from a custom water bottle made for their 35th wedding anniversary this past August, just weeks before Ida hit.

T ALEXIE: It is a heart that's got 35 in it. It's got the infinity symbol that says "Say You, Say Me," 'cause that was our wedding song. And I put established in 1986 with our names with an anchor.

MCCAMMON: Tammy says she grew up nearby, but not right on the bayou like Barataria.

T ALEXIE: So when I came down here, it was totally different for me. But I understand.

MCCAMMON: Benny can't imagine any other way of life.

What does starting all over look like? What is that going to involve?

B ALEXIE: Oh, a lot of hard work, a lot of time - I still got a lot to teach my son. He wants to do what I do. I just hope I got the time to be able to teach him like my dad did.

MCCAMMON: Tammy, how do you feel about your son pursuing this career?

T ALEXIE: I asked him not to.

MCCAMMON: Do you want to rebuild your house? Do you want to stay here?

T ALEXIE: I don't know if I have the strength.

MCCAMMON: But Benny is ready to get back out on his boat, whenever things around them start returning to something more like normal.

B ALEXIE: Until we can get ice and fuel and have a place to sell the shrimp, I probably won't go back to work.

MCCAMMON: Benny used to spend days at a time out on the water, fishing for his business and also for his family.

T ALEXIE: That's one of the saddest things, too - all our life, we would fill our freezers for us to have shrimp all winter.

MCCAMMON: That supplemented your income.

T ALEXIE: Like, a lot.

MCCAMMON: Yeah.

T ALEXIE: So - but we lost three freezers full of stuff that we saved.

MCCAMMON: Benny considers himself fortunate that his boat is still here, and he's grateful to be alive. Another neighbor wasn't so lucky. Nationwide, the storm killed dozens of people in several states.

Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner is fighting to prevent more devastation like this. His first baby is on the way, and he says he wants this place to be around for his children, like it was for generations before him. Kerner recently traveled to Washington to meet with Louisiana lawmakers and Biden administration officials. He says he wants the federal government to do more to protect the Lafitte area before storms hit.

KERNER: The amount of money they're spending right now on us - you know, the federal government is willing to come help us lift us out of human suffering, but they're not willing to prevent it.

MCCAMMON: Cedric Richmond, a former Louisiana congressman and a senior adviser to President Biden, agrees that more needs to be done to protect coastal communities like Lafitte.

CEDRIC RICHMOND: We have a bunch of communities in Louisiana that are outside flood protection. They're vulnerable communities. And so that's - one of the things we have to do is invest in the infrastructure to make sure that we can survive the extreme weather events.

MCCAMMON: But protecting people in one place can sometimes end up harming people in others. Ricky Boyett with the Army Corps of Engineers says it's unclear exactly how much water the pumping station is pushing toward the Lafitte area, but it's something the Corps is studying.

RICKY BOYETT: With any civil works project or any flood risk management project, one of the things that you have to consider is the potential impacts or creating unintended consequences, if you will.

MCCAMMON: Boyett says the Corps did consider Lafitte when it decided where to locate the levee, but engineers had to draw a line somewhere.

BOYETT: The cost of bringing the levee system that existed down through Lafitte would have been pretty significant.

MCCAMMON: Oliver Houck at Tulane says levees can exacerbate a problem that he sees as ultimately unsolvable through engineering.

HOUCK: The bigger the levee, the heavier the levee, the faster it sinks 'cause it's built on muck. And so unless we want to pay moonshot levels of money every couple of years, we have got to start paying people to move out.

MCCAMMON: But many people here along this eroding coastline want to stay for as long as they can hold on. Benny and Tammy Alexie have applied four or five times to Jefferson Parish for grants to elevate their home, but they've been denied.

Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng says there's a waiting list for those funds. But she's encouraged by the Hurricane Ida Sheltering Program, an effort announced this week by state and federal officials to find temporary housing for people displaced by Ida. In the long term, Sheng says, more investment in infrastructure like pumps and levees will be essential here because many people like the Alexies just aren't leaving.

T ALEXIE: And that's kind of what it's like.

MCCAMMON: As the sun sets over the bayou, Tammy points behind us.

T ALEXIE: Actually, if y'all can peek out right there, you see him the way he's out there fishing - my son, he's fishing. That's his joy, and that's why we're going to stay. And I'ma (ph) stay - may evacuate for anything that comes, though, 'cause I'm scared. But we're going to stay.

MCCAMMON: You've made peace - you're making peace with the idea of staying?

T ALEXIE: I guess, 'cause I don't think he's going to leave. He never wanted to leave.

B ALEXIE: I'm not going.

T ALEXIE: Never wanted to leave.

MCCAMMON: Tammy says their neighbors have promised the family a place to live through Christmas. But she and Benny don't know where they'll go after that.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Barataria, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.