Flood City: Louisiana prepares to move neighborhood after 50 years of floods

Andrew J. Yawn
The American South

When residents began moving into Pecan Acres 50 years ago, they had no idea they’d one day call their neighborhood Flood City. 

Most were low-income Black farming families from the other side of the Mississippi River forced to look for a new home after the decline of sharecropping. In Pecan Acres, a two-street collection of 40 houses in central Louisiana’s Pointe Coupee Parish, a local farm equipment supplier named Alton “Billy” Ducote was selling the only lots many could afford. 

Demetra Stafford was 6 years old when her parents moved into their corner house on Pecan Drive East in 1971, but she can still remember the excitement. 

“My parents were farmers. They picked cotton for someone else,” Stafford said. “When they got the opportunity to purchase a home, it was like ‘Oh my god, we’ll finally be able to get a house where we don’t have to use the outhouse and take a bath in the big steel tubs!’ 

“But they ran from one thing into something else.”

Less than a year later, Stafford was sleeping through a heavy rainstorm when their neighbor, Jules Derosin, called her father. 

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“He called my father at like 4 or 5 in the morning and said, ‘George, do you have water in your house?’ And when he put his foot on the floor he had water almost up to his knee,” Stafford said. “There wasn’t much we could do besides try to save some clothes because the water was so high. Everything else was already wet.”

Pecan Acres has flooded at least 17 times in the last 30 years, according to state officials, though longtime residents estimate the total to be much higher. 

“Every year, or every other year after that, there was something,” Stafford said. “If it didn’t get in, it got high.”

Neither Ducote nor anyone in the nearby parish seat of New Roads, Louisiana, warned the residents about the Portage Canal butting against Pecan Acres’ northern edge. Seemingly an unremarkable ditch at first glance, the canal provides an outlet for an upstream watershed. The new homeowners quickly learned that any significant rainstorm can send it surging into the streets. 

“Any time it rains, it floods,” said Harold Terrance, a lifelong resident of Pecan Acres who said he moved to the neighborhood in 1969. “You might as well just start picking your stuff up.”

Residents in Pecan Acres have flooded at least 17 times in the past 30 years, and residents keep stacks of cinder blocks on hand to lift furniture at the first sign of rain.

As years passed, flood waters rose and fell around their low, ranch-style homes while most surrounding neighborhoods stayed dry. Residents saw their property values decline meaning many couldn’t sell their homes or afford to move. 

Ever-increasing flood insurance costs pushed many to stop paying for it. Stacks of cinder blocks became commonplace at most houses. At the first sign of a storm, neighbors rushed from house to house lifting furniture and appliances off the ground. 

“We gave our neighborhood a name: Flood City,” said Monica Fabre, whose parents bought a house in Pecan Acres in 1971. “Everyone knew us when we were at school. We knew that when the rain fell hard, they would have to excuse us for two or three days because we couldn’t go to school. I thought it was normal that everyone had cinder blocks stacked up in the back of their houses.”

Jimmy Laurent Jr., the Pointe Coupee Parish Assessor, compared the canal to “trying to contain the Mississippi River.” 

“Sometimes it goes where it wants to go,” Laurent Jr. said. “I was in high school in the 70s. They’ve been asking for help at least that long.”

Now, it seems help is finally on the way. 

Correcting a loss of generational wealth : “I’m glad it’s coming.”

The State of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development is nearing completion on a 5-year, $18.7 million relocation project to move Pecan Acres to higher ground. 

The new neighborhood, called Audubon Estates, sits 1.5 miles from Pecan Acres and will mimic the two-street design of their old subdivision. Sixteen raised homes will be completed by the end of the year.

“I’m glad it’s coming,” Stafford said. “I’m just sorry it’s taken so long.”

Demetra Stafford grew up on Pecan Drive East and has endured flooding in her house 17 times.  Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

The project is funded through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and will allow the state to buy residents out of their homes, estimated at $40,000 to $60,000. Residents will then use that money to secure a soft mortgage on a house valued at $215,000 that they will own outright after five years.

So far, 17 households have agreed to move. 

Similar to the state’s ongoing relocation of the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw Tribe, a band of coastal Indians threatened by rising sea levels, the Pecan Acres relocation is one of the nation’s first attempts at moving an entire community from land threatened by climate disasters. 

But OCD executive director Pat Forbes said the program also corrects a loss in generational wealth for families who unknowingly invested in land not fit for habitation.

“Essentially the opportunity they were robbed of 40 years ago to try to build family wealth when they were sold homes in a flood prone area, we are reestablishing that opportunity for them through this program,” Forbes said. 

Subdivision map of Audubon Estates, the neighborhood the state of Louisiana is building to house residents of Pecan Acres, a neighborhood that has flooded at least 17 times in the past 30 years.

For some, the relief feels like coming above water for the first time in decades. Pointe Coupee translates to “cut-off point,” mirroring the isolation residents felt after years of local government inaction. Pecan Acres residents turned to the New Roads City Council for help. But the neighborhood is outside city limits, and local officials didn’t intervene. 

Laurent Jr.’s father, James Laurent Sr., sat on the city council from the late 70s to the mid-80s. “We had no authority,” he said and it left him feeling “helpless.” 

He recognized that families didn’t have many options. “They didn’t have any reserve to make any moves. They used everything they had to acquire a house in an area that was less expensive than everywhere else,” Laurent Sr. said. “It’s tragic the way a single decision like that can cause decades of problems.”

Pointe Coupee Parish's Pecan Acres neighborhood after the 2016 floods.

FEMA records show the agency consulted with Pointe Coupee Parish officials as early as 1978 and studied the waterways affecting its unincorporated areas. The 1979 study included the Portage Canal and noted that “backwater effects have produced notable flood elevations in the past.” But the study did not mention the flood-plagued Pecan Acres neighborhood and noted the survey was primarily for establishing flood insurance rates. 

A levee was built in the late 90s and a pump was installed soon after. But the neighborhood has continued to flood, and by then residents had already lost so much.

Ethel Stewart is 66 years old, her home has flooded several times and is ready to move to new neighborhood but is tired of waiting.Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

Ethel Stewart, who lives one house away from the canal, lost multiple vehicles. Stafford lost all photos of her grandmother and her children’s baby pictures. 

“To watch where I grew up flattened...If you were going to do something, why not do it after the 10th flood? In the early 80s?” Fabre said. 

Breaking through that mistrust of government aid was the first step in convincing residents to move. 

But the process slowed when the state realized many of the houses didn't have clear titles because they were passed down via inheritance laws to multiple family members. Chad Carson, project manager of the Pecan Acres relocation for OCD, said untangling the web of ownership was crucial to buying out residents but said “it’s “more complicated than I ever would have guessed.”

“There’s some folks who we don’t know if they’ll go in the new neighborhood because they’re still in the process of title clearing," Carson said.

Not another year in “Flood City”

Once Pecan Acres is empty, the state will clear every lot and turn the neighborhood into a natural wetland. “This not only gets folks out of harm’s way, but is a risk reducing factor for the entire area because it returns this location back to wetlands,” Forbes said. 

“Which is what it should have stayed forever, obviously,” he added.

Houses around Stewart are already being demolished and the neighborhood feels empty. Initially, the state expected residents to move into their new homes in spring of 2021, but COVID-19 and the 2020 hurricane season limited the availability of contractors and delayed the bid process.

Audubon Estates is under construction in New Roads, LA. Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

After 50 years of fearing the rumble of thunder and drumming of rain, Stewart fears spending another year in Flood City.

“After a while it’s going to be flood season again,” Stewart said. “We’re just waiting for them to build the houses so we can move.”

She looks forward to reuniting in a new community where weather won’t dictate their moments of togetherness. 

“They all say we’re going to have a block party, because we’ve been apart so long,” Stewart said. “Everyone just wants to be back together healthy and happy as soon as we can.”

Demetra Stafford grew up on Pecan Drive East and has endured flooding in her house 17 times.  Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

Stafford is also ready to move on. After the 2016 floods, it was impossible to fix everything in the home she grew up in. Doors were missing from hinges. Cabinets were never replaced. Entire walls no longer exist. As part of the relocation program, the state covers temporary housing for residents waiting to move into Audubon Estates. 

Stafford applied once the mold became unbearable. 

“It’s depressing for one,” Stafford said. “My mom and dad worked hard to get that house.”

From the kitchen window of the mobile home she’s renting off LA-10, Stafford can see her future home across the street. Fire hydrants were recently installed. The two lane road has been completed. Fittingly, residents named it Heron Way for the bird that can’t swim but spends much of its life in the water.

“A lot of people say, ‘I hate to move out of my house, because the house has so many memories. Yes, the house has memories, but I hold my memories in my heart,” Stafford said. 

“Here, when it’s raining at night, I can go to bed and not worry about waking up and finding water everywhere.”

News tips? Questions? Call reporter Andrew Yawn at 985-285-7689 or email him at ayawn@gannett.com. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.