Louisiana’s hurricane-damaged coast faces insurance woes as storm season begins: NPR


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

Debbie Elliott/NPR


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

Debbie Elliott/NPR

HOUMA, La. — The scars from last year’s Hurricane Ida look fresh — a grocery store in the mall is abandoned, its glass front shattered; gas station signboards and canopies are ripped off; faded blue tarps cover the buildings.

“The center was really overwhelmed,” said Jonathan Foret, executive director of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center in Houma, a city of about 30,000 southwest of New Orleans. He points to the boarded-up historic storefronts and missing roofs.

Forett examines the remaining damage while driving to see his insurance agent. He is among tens of thousands of Louisiana homeowners struggling to find new property insurance in the midst of the new Atlantic hurricane season. Most major companies have stopped covering the coast, and now smaller businesses are going out of business after Louisiana was hit by two major hurricanes in the past two years.


A grocery store window blown out by Hurricane Ida last year sits abandoned in a strip mall in Houma, Louisiana.

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A grocery store window blown out by Hurricane Ida last year sits abandoned in a strip mall in Houma, Louisiana.

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Foret says the insurance changes are only making an already slow disaster recovery worse.

“It actually had more of an aggravating effect of driving by these things and seeing them broken and destroyed every day,” he says. “It became more depressing than I thought it would be.”

His own home still needs repairs – his kitchen roof is covered with a tarp, waiting for a hard-to-find contractor. Now he’s trying to iron out that complication with his insurance agent, Tracy Bennett of La-Terre Insurance Agency.

He hands her envelopes that came from a new company and asks if they’ve been paid for. Bennett tells him that his coverage is now with the state-owned Louisiana Citizen’s Property Insurance Corporation.

“We still have people with Ida damage, so if you have an open claim or damage that you’re still fixing, Citizen is the only option we have,” she says.


Insurance agent Tracy Bennett tried to help hundreds of clients find new property insurance when their providers went under after 2 years of major hurricane hits in Louisiana.

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Insurance agent Tracy Bennett tried to help hundreds of clients find new property insurance when their providers went under after 2 years of major hurricane hits in Louisiana.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

Her office is overwhelmed trying to help hundreds of clients like Forret whose insurance companies have gone bankrupt or not renewed policies on the coast.

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

“This is a crisis,” says Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donnellon.

And he says it’s close to what happened in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the state. Most major national firms stopped offering wind insurance in South Louisiana then. So the state turned to about 30 regional firms 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 already gone into receivership,” Donnellon says.

Even the insurance commissioner is not immune. Donnellon and his wife are among 140,000 property owners who lost their policies and had to find new coverage. He says about half of those policies have been taken over by other firms. But the onus falls on Citizen’s, the state insurer of last resort.

“They absorb it, but it’s not pretty,” he says. “They’re flooded.”

He predicts that Citizen’s will triple its policy numbers by the end of the year. And those government policies are more expensive than private insurers, whose rates have also increased. Adding to the pain, flood premiums through the National Flood Insurance Program are also going up.

Donnellon says legislation passed earlier this year would require insurance companies to have more capital to operate in Louisiana, which should prevent another wave of foreclosures. He says it is vital to both the state and the national economy to have solvent companies willing and able to write policies here.


Damage from Hurricane Ida remains in neighborhoods around Houma, La.

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Damage from Hurricane Ida remains in neighborhoods around Houma, La.

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“Coastal Louisiana is burdened more than any other part of the country because we really have a working coast,” he says, pointing to oil and gas production, port activity and the seafood industry.

“We need to support these people,” Donnellon says. “I believe we can meet this challenge with the private sector, although it will be expensive.”

Houma insurance agent Bennett says her clients are in pain.

“I can tell you it was crippling down here,” she says. “It’s scary.”

At the very least, the new coverage adds several hundred dollars to mortgages.

Houma is a mostly working-class town in Terrebonne Parish, a region dotted with bays that lead to the Gulf of Mexico at its southern end. The median household income is about $45,000 a year, compared to about $65,000 for the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Foret says that doesn’t leave much wiggle room to deal with higher insurance costs layered with inflation, hurricane recovery and the ongoing threat of climate change, which includes more frequent and intense hurricanes and rising sea levels level.

“We’re in it,” Foret says. “It’s like we’re in it in a way that’s going to prevent people from being able to live on the coast.”

Climate migration is a politically charged conversation. But this happens gradually with each catastrophic event. Foret has seen it in his own family. His father grew up in the Gulf community of Cocodri, then moved further up Bayou Terrebonne in the town of Chauvin when he married. Foret, now the father of a young child, has migrated even further north to Houma.

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

You can see evidence of migration from far south Terrebonne Parish, where schools and fire stations remain out of commission. Dozens of homes are abandoned and look just as they did a week after Ida hit – roofs ripped off and furniture scattered among the wreckage.

Alex Kolker, a professor at LUMCON, the University of Louisiana Maritime Consortium in Cocodri, says the higher costs of cleanup, restoration and current insurance could transform these towns.

“I think it makes these areas much, much harder to live in and harder to create a community that people would want to live in,” Colker says. “So I think you’re looking at the possibility of climate migration and people moving elsewhere.”

Kolker says what’s happening here should be a wake-up call.

“The real problem is that it’s not just a few isolated people in rural Terrebonne Parish,” he says. “This could happen to so many people across the country in the not too distant future.”


FEMA trailers placed on a gravel lot south of Houma provide shelter for people displaced by Hurricane Ida, including residents of a public housing complex that was condemned.

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FEMA trailers placed on a gravel lot south of Houma provide shelter for people displaced by Hurricane Ida, including residents of a public housing complex that was condemned.

Debbie Elliott/NPR

Fanny Celestin’s experience after Hurricane Ida shows how people are driven from their communities by disaster. Her public housing apartment in Houma was condemned after Ida. She is 59 and has lost almost all her belongings.

“It’s hard to talk about it without crying,” she says.

Due to a housing shortage near the coast, Celestine lived for months in a hotel 100 miles away in Lafayette before moving into a FEMA trailer closer to home. It is located on an isolated gravel field far from the city, with no public transport. She doesn’t have a car.

“It’s a place to stay, but I’m from Houma,” she says. “And I’d like to go back to where I’m from.”

She is tired of depending on relatives to take her to the doctor or shopping, and longs to return to a normal life.

“Like going to the store and getting groceries or going for a walk at the mall,” Celestin says. “It would mean a lot. But what can we do?’

Foret is also looking to get back to normal. And he spots a literal sign of his arrival on the back of a trailer rig.

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

After nearly a year of seeing hurricane-disfigured golden arches on the corner, this renovation gives him a glimmer of hope that things will get better.

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