ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The state of Louisiana has made a tough choice. As sea levels rise, its coastal marshes disappear, and officials say they can't protect everyone from flooding. The state has created a buyout program to move people north to safety. The problem is there's no money for it. Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO in New Orleans has our report. It's a collaboration with Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Malcolm LaCoste has been shrimping in the Gulf of Mexico since he was a kid. Friends just call him Lil Mackey. He waves to neighbors as he cruises up the shallow bayou in his blue-and-white boat.
MALCOLM LACOSTE: Every house we passed so far is first, second cousins.
WENDLAND: Oh, wow.
LACOSTE: It's all family.
WENDLAND: The small fishing community is about a hundred miles southwest of New Orleans. Flooding is expected to get so bad here that the state says people should leave.
LACOSTE: Pulling up to the dock.
WENDLAND: Mackey parks the boat in front of his brown single-story house right on the water. He says after every hurricane, families move away. Those left plan their lives around the weather.
LACOSTE: During hurricane season we're always on edge.
WENDLAND: When a storm comes, Mackey's glued to the TV.
LACOSTE: If they have a storm coming I have to get in, lift everything up that I can, put what I can - get it out of harm's way, secure my boat, get out of dodge.
WENDLAND: That's happened so many times that he changed the carpet to tiles so he can just wipe off the mud. When it gets really bad, he and his wife load up the truck with their best furniture and drive north to their daughter's place.
You guys have done that a number of times?
LACOSTE: Quite a bit, quite a few times, quite a few times.
WENDLAND: Louisiana is losing land faster than just about anywhere in the world. Since the 1930s, nearly 2,000 square miles have washed away into the Gulf due to sea level rise and natural erosion. So after Hurricane Katrina, the state made a plan to rebuild barrier islands and plant new marshes, to use sediment from the Mississippi River and rebuild what's been lost. But officials now admit they can't protect everyone. Some people are going to have to move. Bren Haase is a planner with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
BREN HAASE: I think it's important to note this is really the first time we've had kind of this level of discussion about this sensitive of a topic.
WENDLAND: The agency made a plan to buy people's houses, demolish them and pay for new houses further north. They used elevation data and storm modeling. And this is what they decided. If a strong storm would cause 5 feet of flooding, you should raise your home up on stilts. Thousands have already done so. But if the flood depths hit 12 feet, time to get out. I asked Haase...
So do you know where these specific properties are?
HAASE: I do not. I don't have a list, you know, of structures in my pocket or anything like that.
WENDLAND: So Reveal used the state's data and created a map. And that's how I found Lil Mackey and his neighbors. I wonder if he'd take the money and move north.
LACOSTE: I'd seriously consider it. It's not going to get any better. The marsh isn't coming back. It's losing more and more all the time.
WENDLAND: But Mackey had no idea he was in this new buyout zone. The state hasn't told these 2,400 homeowners they should move. The reason is pretty simple. Haase says the buyout program would cost $1.2 billion, and the state just doesn't have the money.
HAASE: There's been almost none that would've been available for this kind of thing.
WENDLAND: The state does have a lot of money to restore its coast, mostly from a settlement with BP after its devastating oil spill in 2010. But Haase says that money can't be used for buyouts. For now, he says...
HAASE: To go to an individual homeowner and say this is what needs to happen, you know, in this particular location might actually be irresponsible at this point.
SCOTT EUSTIS: That's (laughter) ridiculous.
WENDLAND: Scott Eustis works for the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental advocacy group.
EUSTIS: The state of Louisiana has a duty to inform its residents that there are threats to their public safety. And they need to be talking to people about that now.
WENDLAND: There is federal money for victims of storms and flooding, but Republican Congressman Garret Graves says it only comes after a disaster. That money doesn't help people prepare for a situation that's going to get worse.
GARRET GRAVES: We are either going to spend this money now or we're going to spend it later. And it's going to end up being much more expensive if we do the latter.
WENDLAND: In 2013, President Obama ordered federal agencies to work together to prepare for climate change. But President Trump rescinded that order. So for now, people like Mackey are on their own.
LACOSTE: We're living on borrowed time right now. I thought this year when we had all the winds coming from Florida and Texas, I figured we had - time was about running out. But we dodged all the bullets.
WENDLAND: Mackey's left in the same position the government is - waiting for the next storm and then cleaning up after. For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in Dulac, La.
SIEGEL: And there's a map of Louisiana's proposed buyout zones at npr.org. We'll have more on the state's land loss tomorrow on Morning Edition and on the next episode of Reveal.
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