“I wish they would listen to the people. The people that live here.”- Comments from the Coast

Name: Troy Alfonso
Hometown: Wood Lake, Louisiana
Parish: St. Bernard

Louisiana loses a football field worth of its coastal wetlands every hour. Few know this as well as the fishermen whose work depends on the Gulf’s waters and the residents who inhabit the frontlines. They live with the knowledge that sea level rise, coastal erosion, and intensified storms threaten their homes and their way of life. In the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan, our state has proposed “nonstructural” options for responding to these threats, including resources for voluntary buyouts from their homes and assistance with floodproofing and elevation. According to the state of Louisiana, if an area would flood more than 14 feet during a 100 year storm event, that area is deemed an unsafe and not resilient community. The state calls these areas “Resettlement Zones.” To ensure that communities are prepared for the future and understand where predicted Resettlement Zones will be, Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) has created a series of maps.

The transcription below is from an interview with Troy Alfonso that was made possible by Ruston Pritchard, one of GRN’s legal interns. Alfonso is a lifelong resident of Wood Lake, Louisiana, a town outside of the flood wall protections on the road to Delacroix Island. Alfonso is a descendant of the Isleños from the Canary Islands. In addition to being a fisherman, Alfonso makes his living as a mechanic and ship repairman on the riverfront. Neither his identity, nor his livelihood can be separated from the place he calls home. In his own words: “I came back after the storm messed us all up, tore up our house, and I came back. And I don’t plan on going nowhere unless I get blown away again.”

How long have you lived in your house?

“This house was built in 2001. Sixteen years old.”

How many times has your home flooded since you bought it?”

One time. [Hurricane] Katrina. Under the bottom floods. The yard floods. But the house itself I had 20 inches of water in it for Katrina. Like 20 inches in here, at 16 feet, that’s almost 18 feet above sea level, the water was. The power lines were in the water here. When I built the house, I told the insurance lady, I said, “The bank’s making me get flood insurance, but I don’t really want it.’ She said, “You don’t want flood insurance?’ I said, “Lady, you know how high I am? When I get water it’s over with.’ And it was. It was over with.”

Is your home elevated, and if so how high?

“Yes. The floors are 16 feet above sea level.”

Have you heard about the Coastal Master Plan? If so, what have you heard?

“I’ve heard of it. But I don’t know a whole lot about it. [I] just hear bits and pieces about the big diversion they want to put in there. Two diversions in the area. And nobody down here is going for that, and they not agreeing with it. But that’s what they’re saying [the state] want to do.

They got a diversion in there now. It ruined us. Took all our land away across the bayou. I can show you. Watch. You see all that water over there? Prior to [Hurricane] Katrina, that was all land. They never had no water there. It was all land. And that diversion that they put in–Caernarvon–it kept that flooded. Kept the water in there. And when the storm come, it just washed it all away. The root system–it just was gone. Now we got nothing but water back here. Everybody lost their land. All our marshland is all gone. And if you go to the back–the back land, where the diversion didn’t affect, the land stayed. It never washed it away. It’s a better marsh. It’s a saltwater marsh, it can hold up better than what they was doing. See we got a few pines right here. But you see we got land all the way back here? That’s been like that for years. It never washed it away like the freshwater part. That diversion, it ruined it. All that land was in the canal, when the storm came. The canal, when I came home after the storm, you could walk across it. It was solid land. All that marshland ended up in the bayou. That’s been a bayou forever. My dad always shrimped and we had big big boats, used to bring them up here. We always had ten, twelve feet of water in the bayou. Now we don’t. It’s more shallow now. But the freshwater ruins it. It don’t work.

The silt don’t [do] nothing. It don’t make it in. And it fills in like where it’s at, but at the time, to get two, three feet of silt, it would take hundreds of years. And you don’t have that kind of time. And if you get a storm– you’re gonna get a storm–that’s gonna take it all away again, then it’s gotta start over. So it’s never gonna get there. Not in four, five lifetimes. You know, it builds up two three inches, then you get a hurricane–that’s gone. So you got to start from square one again. Pumping and dredging is the way to go. They doing a lil project out here in the lake, and they pumped in all on one side, and now they got land. In one year they built this much land over the whole area. So why not stay doing that. But, the state won’t hear dredging. They wanna to do this project. And this cost billions of dollars what they want to do. And they can make a lot of land dredging for the amount of money. And I don’t know why they don’t want to do that.

That’s how they do it. We fight them on all kind of stuff and we never win. The state always wins. They gonna do what they want to do. I get a meeting one time about that. And all the people get up there and talk, like I’m telling you. And they said, ” Okay so we heard what y’all gotta say, and this and that, but we think the diversion is the best way to go.’ So why you even have the meeting? You had your mind made up before the people went down. And then they talk about buying us out, moving us outta here, and the St. Bernard Parish, at one time they said if they put the big diversion, it’s gonna be a bigger than the Bonnet Carre Spillway. They’ll have six feet of water over the road here. At all times. So nobody would be able to live here. You could even own a boat, [but] where are you gonna tie it at? So anything outside of the floodwall would be gone. St. Bernard Parish would be devastated. Because it’s not only us that fish and work here, but all the people up through, they all go sport fishing on the weekends. You got gas stations, you got big shops, you got–all that would be gone. You wouldn’t be able to come here with a boat. They would knock this parish off the map. I would just be gone. Plaquemines Parish the same way. So I don’t know what they thinking about. They ain’t thinking about us.”

Did you know that if your home would flood more than 14 feet during a 100 year storm event, the state is not planning to provide resources for elevation and is recommending that you move? What do you think about that?”

When I built it that’s what the elevation was. 14 feet above sea level. And I’m actually 16. But it didn’t keep it away from the storm. I still got wet.

I think you oughta be able to stay wherever you want if you’re willing to take the risk. I say it’s your property, it’s your house, you do what you want. I don’t think they should tell you where you should live or where you shouldn’t live. If they don’t want to insure you, well that’s up to you. But it’s up to the people if you want to get insurance and live here, or if you don’t get insurance and live here. It’s up to you.”

If the state provided money to elevate or to buy your home, would you move? Would you ever consider moving, say if they moved your neighbors or family as well?”

I wouldn’t want to move, no. I lived in the city area and all, the subdivision. I didn’t like it. I like where I’m at. And at the same time, like you just told me your house had 9 feet of water in it [after Hurricane Katrina]. I had 20 inches. Where would you rather be? 20 inches or 9 feet? They make us pay dearly for insurance, and like I said we got 20 inches of water. People over here got water up to their gutters. And we gotta pay dearly for insurance. But when we get wet they’re gonna get wet too. They built this great big wall around St. Bernard Parish, it’s supposed to stop everything. But they never touched the river levee. It’s at the same elevation. And that water was splashing over the river levee for Katrina. That’s gonna be their downfall. They gonna flood through the river levee next time and they don’t see that. To make a protection you gotta build a wall all the way around. Not halfway. You gotta make a circle with the wall, if not you ain’t got nothing. The river levee in Violet the water was splashing over it. For Katrina. All it was take a little bitty cut and bust a levee, and it’s over. You’re gonna flood. Then it’s gonna take them longer to get the water out than to put this great big wall around it. You gotta pump it all out.I don’t want to move. And I like my house the way it is–up in the air. I really enjoy downstairs. I got a big garage. Now, nobody can move down here anymore, because of the cost. Because it’s so much to come down here. Like if you were to come and build this house down here, it would cost you a fortune today. And you could move up into the levee and build on a slab. But they messing they people up, too. Like I got a cousin building a house up the road right now. And they made him put five feet of mud in his yard to put his house on. Raise it up. And it’s not gonna do any good. In the area, the water was in the attic. What is five feet gonna do you? They not making any sense with that. Then they built this great big wall that’s supposed to help you, and then they raised the flood elevation. Everybody has to raise up three more feet up there. And that’s not gonna do you any good. That’s a bunch of work and money for basically nothing. Cause the top three feet of your house ain’t got nothing anyway. Everything’s on the bottom floor. When you get two, three feet of water in your house, everything’s ruined. All your cabinets, your appliances, that’s where all your money’s at. It ain’t up at the ceiling. They do things like that, it’s aggravating. You don’t know who makes up these rules. But they’re not thinking about the situation at all. But my house was busted up, but we fixed it. We redid everything. The front porch fell off. No siding–it was destroyed. But we fixed it back up. Me and the kids did it. We put everything back in. And then just recently my father-in-law’s house in Braithwaite flooded, and I went a redid his. And then my oldest son wanted to buy a house–it was flooded, but it was all gutted out. So I went a redid his. I mean, we know how to do it now. Now my daughter’s getting ready to buy one with Ruston in Meraux that’s flooded. Gon buy it from my aunt and we’re going in to redo that one. We’ve learned a lot. I don’t want to do it again. Not in my house, anyway. Not the way we had to do cause it was busted. We had to change all the windows, all the doors. Them doors was gone, completely gone. This china cabinet–that’s not it, but I had one just like it, it floated all the way over there against the back wall. With all the dishes still in it, standing straight up just like that. Floated all the way over there. Man, had big lumps of marsh grass in here. In the living room. It was amazing.”

What do you wish the state was doing to educate you on your flood risk?

“I wish they would listen to the people. The people that live here. And not people that live from north Louisiana that don’t know anything about this area. I’ve been here all my life. We deal with this all the time. Water. It’s common knowledge here. The only way they can straighten this out is if they start pumping some land in. When I was a child, before the water would come up it would take a couple of days before it came up. Now it can come up and down twice a day. There’s no protection, there’s nothing to stop it from coming in and out. It just comes in so fast that you flood. Before, by the time the water got all the way in, the wind done changed, and the water would start going back out before. But now there’s no protection, it just comes in so fast and goes out so fast. Where you see all the land that’s gone, that wasn’t like that before. Before Katrina that was all solid land. It ruined everything. We got people that owned marshland down there, cause it was a trapping community. And you owned 80 acres of land. They had 80 acres of solid land, now they probably have 10. They lost all their land from the diversion. [That] caused it. There’s no more of that. No marsh rat trapping, they don’t have enough land. Yes, it’s bad. And people’s livelihoods. We had oyster beds all up in this area, And now the fresh water comes in and kills all the oysters. So all that–that’s all gone. There’s gonna be a time, they don’t have oysters left. They done killed everything with the fresh water. And they put all this in there, you ain’t eating any more Louisiana oysters from St. Bernard. I mean, that’s big business, you know? It’s people’s livelihoods. Before the storm down here–this should tell you–we had about two hundred families lived down here. Now they got twelve. Twelve families. Outta two hundred. They relocated. Their houses was gone. I blame FEMA. FEMA came in here, and they told the people, we will buy you out if you move away. So they gave them a lot of money for their land, And they moved up the road here and got another house. If they would have told the people, ” We’ll help you if you build back,’ everybody would’ve built back where they was. They wouldn’t have went to Mississippi, across the lake–they wouldn’t have moved all over. They would’ve all built back, everybody would’ve been happy, your community would’ve been there. St. Bernard Parish lost all they tax base. There were 65,000 people before the storm, now there’s 35,000. So your tax base is gone overnight. It ain’t like a gradual thing that you can adjust to. It’s all gone overnight. And it’s FEMA that did it. They moved all these people. Instead of saying, ” You build back where you was and we’ll help you,’ they paid them to move. So then they devastated the area. And then when the people moved to the Northshore, it overcrowded that area. You can’t do that overnight. I think they learned their lesson, but it’s kinda late.”

This blog is part of a series amplifying voices from communities in coastal Louisiana. Like many other residents in southern Louisiana, Troy Alfonso has a deep attachment to the place that he calls home. His life and livelihood are dependent upon the existence and health of the coast. The state of Louisiana must work closely with communities as it begins to implement both the structural and nonstructural portions of the Coastal Master Plan. It must find the best methods to protect them while taking into account their concerns and priorities. In collaboration with local, regional and national organizations, GRN submitted comments to the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority on the 2017 Coastal Master Plan with suggestions on how to improve the nonstructural aspect of the plan so that it prioritizes the communities most at risk. GRN will continue to work with coastal residents as well as our community and conservation partners to share knowledge about the coastal crisis and advocate to make sure the state provides coastal communities with the information, tools and resources that they need to survive.

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