Hurricane-damaged coastal Louisiana faces insurance woes as storm season begins: NPR


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

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

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HOUMA, La. – The scars from last year’s Hurricane Ida look fresh – a grocery store in the mall is abandoned, its glass front blown out; gas station signs and canopies have been removed; Faded blue tarps cover the buildings.

“The downtown area was really hit,” says Jonathan Foret, executive director of the South Louisiana Wetlands Discovery Center in Houma, a city of about 30,000 people southwest of New Orleans. It points to historic storefronts and missing roofs.

Foret is surveying the damage left on a car to see his insurance agent. He is among tens of thousands of Louisiana homeowners scrambling to find new property insurance amid a new Atlantic hurricane season. Most of the big companies have dropped their coastal coverage, and now smaller firms are succumbing after Louisiana was hit by two major hurricanes in the past two years.


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

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

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Foret says changing insurance simply exacerbates an already slow disaster recovery.

“It’s really had more of a compounding effect of driving by those things and seeing them broken and destroyed every day,” he says. “It’s become more depressing than I thought it would be.”

His house still needs repairs – a tarp covers his kitchen roof pending a contractor, which is hard to find. Now he is trying to resolve this complication with his insurance agent, Tracee Bennett at La-Terre Insurance Agency.

He hands her the envelopes that came from a new company, asking if they were paid. Bennett tells him his coverage is now with the state-run Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corporation.

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


Insurance agent Tracee 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 Tracee 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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Her office has been overwhelmed trying to help hundreds of clients like Foret whose insurance companies have either 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 low point I’ve seen it,” Bennett says.

“It’s a crisis,” says Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon.

And one he says is close to what happened in 2005 after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the state. Most of the large national firms stopped offering wind insurance in South Louisiana at that time. So the state turned to about 30 regional firms to fill the gap.

But after losses of $22 billion 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 now gone into administration,” says Donelon.

Even the insurance commissioner is not immune. Donelon and his wife are among 140,000 property owners who lost their policies and had to find new coverage. He says about half of these policies are taken from other firms. But the burden is falling on Citizen’s – the state insurer of last resort.

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

He predicts that Citizen’s will have tripled the number of policies by the end of the year. And those government policies are more expensive than private insurers, whose rates have also risen. Adding to the pain, flood premiums through the National Flood Insurance Program are also increasing.

Donelon says legislation passed earlier this year will require insurance companies to have more capital to operate in Louisiana, which should prevent another wave of liquidations. He says it’s vital to both the state and national economies to have solvent companies willing and able to write policy 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 busier than any other part of the country because we really have a working coast,” he says, pointing to oil and gas extraction, port activity and the seafood industry.

“We have to support those people,” Donelon says. “I believe we can meet that challenge with the private sector even though it will be expensive.”

Insurance agent Houma Bennett says her clients are feeling the pain.

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

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

Houma is a mostly working-class city in Terrebonne Parish—a region filled 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 US Census Bureau.

Foret says that doesn’t leave much room to cope with higher insurance costs associated with inflation, hurricane recovery and the ongoing threat of climate change, which includes more frequent and intense hurricanes and increased levels of the sea

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

Climate migration is a politically charged conversation. But this has happened gradually with each catastrophic event. Foret has seen it in his family. His father grew up in the Cocodrie community on the Bay, then moved further up Bayou Terrebone to the town of Chauvin when he married. Foret, now the father of a toddler, 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 the migration away from Terrebonne Parish to the south, where schools and fire stations remain out of order. Many homes are abandoned and look the same as they did a week after Ida hit – roofs torn off and furniture strewn in rubble.

Alex Kolker, a professor at LUMCON, the Maritime Consortium of Louisiana Universities in Cocodrie, says the higher costs of cleanup, reconstruction and now insurance could transform these cities.

“I think it makes these areas much, much harder to live in and harder to have the kind of community that people would want to live in,” Kolker says. “So I think you look at the possibility of climate migration and people moving elsewhere.”

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

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


FEMA trailers located 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 located 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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Fannie Celestine’s experience after Hurricane Ida shows how people are displaced from their communities in a disaster. Her public housing apartment in Houma was condemned after Ida. She is 59 years old and has lost almost all her belongings.

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

Due to the lack of housing 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 in a secluded 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 am.”

She is tired of depending on relatives to take her to the doctor or to go shopping, and wants to go back to normal life.

“Like going to the store and doing groceries, or walking around the mall,” says Celestine. “That means a lot. But what can we do?”

Foret is also looking for a return to normality. And he notices a literal arrival sign on the back of a tractor-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 a hurricane-torn golden arches on the corner, this repair gives him a glimmer of hope that things will get better.

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