Katrina & Beyond


Now to America's Gulf Coast, where when people hear the words hurricane damage, they think Katrina. But the small town of Cameron in Louisiana was just about wiped off the map by another hurricane, Rita, just a month after Katrina hit in 2005.

NPR's Jeff Brady returned to Cameron to find out how it's faring.

JEFF BRADY: Cameron still doesn't have a full-service grocery store. There's a post office, a library, and one bank - all in temporary trailers. In fact, the entire town now looks like one big trailer park. Only a few of the old houses could be salvaged. Down at the waterfront you'll see some new shrimp boats replacing those destroyed by Rita, but that industry is recovering very slowly. Just ask David Peashoff(ph).

Mr. DAVID PEASHOFF (Shrimp Net Repairman): If you can tie your shoe, you can do this.

BRADY: He's hunched over a large green shrimp net in the yard beside his mobile home. His business is repairing these nets.

Mr. PEASHOFF: Well, yeah, I used to have about two, three dozen nets inside this here yard, fixing it all at one time. Had hired help and everything else to do it.

BRADY: There's no need for help now. Business is so slow, Peashoff says he's started doing carpentry on the side, and he usually has to go out of town to find even that. Fewer than half of Cameron's 2,000 residents have returned since Hurricane Rita. Some have built new houses on top of pilings that extend ten feet or more above the ground. The area underneath often gets used as a garage.

(Soundbite of hammering)

BRADY: A few others are still rebuilding, but construction has slowed considerably in recent months. That's because the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, recently updated its flood maps again so requirements to get flood insurance are changing. Clifton Hebert directs the Cameron Parish Emergency Preparedness Office. He says the new maps require more people to build even higher than before.

Mr. CLIFTON HEBERT (Director, Cameron Parish Emergency Preparedness Office): The average cost for a 2,000-square-foot home has jumped probably to the $80,000 range just for foundation work, before you even begin to put the house on it.

BRADY: This was never a rich community and few people can justify spending that kind of money.

Mr. HEBERT: What do we do? We can't get our elderly back because they can't climb stairs that are 14, 16, 18 feet in the air. We can't get our young people back because they can't afford the housing. We have no sort of medium income housing. There has to be something done.

BRADY: Residents are worried about Cameron's future. Some even accuse FEMA of trying to kill off their community. But the agency's intention is quite the opposite, according to Bill Barton, an outreach specialist with FEMA.

Mr. BILL BARTON (FEMA): We're wanting to build a sustainable community here, one that won't be washed away with the next disaster.

BRADY: Back in David Peashoff's neighborhood, nearly every house was destroyed. All that was left in most cases was a cement slab. His cousin is a shrimper and lives just down the street with his wife. Like many of their neighbors, Tammy Peashoff says they decided not to rebuild and bought a mobile home instead.

Ms. TAMMY PEASHOFF (Cameron Resident): In order to get back and not go in debt, you know, I want to be able to retire one day without a big note, so we came back in a mobile home.

BRADY: Their double-wide is four feet off the ground. The new requirements for federal flood insurance call for raising it another eight feet. Peashoff says she won't borrow money just so she can build to new government standards, even if they are designed to save her home when the next storm comes.

Ms. PEASHOFF: You know, they talk about an opt-out form, 13, 16 or something where you can opt out of the program and not take any more federal assistance. I'll take that. I'll work and pay for what I have. I don't need their federal assistance.

BRADY: The new flood maps are part of a national program to update similar maps all over the country, and Cameron, FEMA and the state of Louisiana are giving residents a chance to comment on proposed maps before approving the final ones early next year.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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