In the placid days leading up to Hurricane Ida, Charlie Walker, 55, was not afraid.
The longtime resident of Grand Isle, the only inhabited barrier island on the Louisiana coast, was no stranger to storms. Since moving there in 2005, just weeks after Katrina, he had weathered Gustav, Ike, Isaac and Zeta, as well as countless smaller squalls. He had seen the water rush in from the sea, heard oak limbs crack under pummeling winds. He trusted his aluminum motorhome to stay on its wheels, as it always had. After all, they were only predicting a Category 2 storm. “We take those just fine,” he figured.
Even if he wanted to leave, how would he get off the island? His pickup only drove in first gear and reverse. And he couldn’t abandon Whip, the old chestnut horse he looked after for his elderly landlord. All day Friday and Saturday, Walker watched his neighbors’ cars, laden with precious belongings, snake their way off the island. Soon, he was one of just about 100 of the island’s 1,500 full-time residents left behind.
Then Ida gathered strength as it barreled across the warm waters of the Gulf. By Friday evening, meteorologists were predicting it would make landfall as a Category 4, with a much higher storm surge. Walker had been expecting 1 or 2 feet of water, maybe up to the bottom of his motorhome.
“But whenever they changed it to 6, 7 feet, that changed the scenario to now, it’s coming up above my stove,” he said. “You can’t prepare for that. Now it’s too damn late for you to leave.”
Others left on Grand Isle were starting to sense that there was nothing to do but let fate run its course. When the storm rolled in on Sunday morning, Rick Smith laid down on his bed. For 12 hours, he didn’t break eye contact with the framed portrait of Jesus Christ that hung on the opposite wall. Anita Wells gave her 14-year-old daughter a picture of her father, who passed away when the girl was young, and told her to stay put in the bedroom closet.
But as the storm began lashing the island, Walker realized this one was different, and he wasn’t safe.
He called his friend Lee Townsend, a cement contractor who specializes in raising houses onto 16-foot concrete pilings. Lee lived with his wife Sandra in a house known in the neighborhood as the “airport hangar” for its imposing metal siding. If any house on Grand Isle was going to be “hurricane proof,” Walker thought, it would be theirs.
Townsend told Walker that they had plenty of fuel for the generator, and he should head over before it was too late. So Walker scooped up his beloved Yorkie, Scrappy-Doo, hopped in his truck, and headed out into the pounding rain and wind.
Grand Isle formed over thousands of years as massive sediment deposits from the Mississippi River accumulated into “lobes,” or fingers of land jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. The course of the river gradually vacillates back and forth over time, and erosion and tides wore away at the long, narrow land. Abandoned lobes became islands that run parallel to the mainland, forming “barriers” between the open gulf and the coast’s habitat-rich bays.
For millennia, these islands formed, washed away and were remade along the roughly 7,000 square miles of the delta. More recently, however, man-made levees have impeded the river’s natural fluctuations, preventing new sediment deposits.
At the same time, Louisiana’s barrier islands are experiencing some of the fastest relative sea-level rise in the world ― nearly three times the global average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Over the past 100 years, the sea has already risen about 3 feet around Grand Isle, and that rate is expected to increase in the coming decades as planetary warming threatens to submerge the islands completely.
The disappearance of barrier islands is a great concern for scientists, politicians and anyone else who understands the vital role barrier islands play in protecting coastal communities.
“They’re sometimes described as speed bumps,” said Torbjörn Törnqvist, a geology professor at Tulane University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “They act as a barrier if you have this big storm surge coming in, as we saw with Hurricane Ida.”
Without the barrier islands and the coastal marshes they protect, explained Törnqvist, the impact of hurricanes on the mainland, including New Orleans, will be much worse.
Of course, for residents of Grand Isle, serving as a hurricane “speed bump” has obvious drawbacks. Exposed to the open waters of the Gulf, the island receives the full brunt of every storm. Wind, rain and the devastating surges have written the island’s history, in many crucial ways.
In 1860, some 90 years before storms were given names, a hurricane with a 6-foot storm surge washed away everything humans had built there. They rebuilt, only to suffer total destruction again during the Great Hurricane of 1893. It happened again in 1909 and 1915. The semi-regular onslaught continued into the 20th and 21st centuries, although improved building techniques and materials, and the practice of raising structures on pilings, have spared the community from total devastation in more recent times.
That is, until Ida.
Inside The Storm
Grand Isle Chief of Police Scooter Resweber was getting ready to ride out the storm in his second-story corner office in a large concrete building called the Multiplex. The Multiplex houses the police station, city council chambers and local court. Every part of it, down to the large reinforced glass windows, was built to withstand 200 miles per hour wind.
At 72, Resweber remembers plenty of bad storms. But as Ida grew in ferocity, he became nervous.
“We don’t know what’s gonna happen,” he told the nine police officers piled into his office for safety on Sunday afternoon. They all watched the mounting chaos outside through the big storm-proof windows. One of the raised houses across the street began to disintegrate in the wind.
“We just saw it go to pieces,” Resweber said. “And then we looked that way, you can see a roof flying off, and then trailers rolling over … then all the sudden we start feeling the building shake.”
A producer at the Weather Channel called Resweber as the hurricane began to arrive in earnest. The chief described the bedlam he was witnessing outside his window, and then asked her a question: “How long before the eye gets here, how much more we got to go?”
“About three hours,” the producer replied.
“We can’t take any more,” he told her.
Then his phone went dead.
In the hour and a half since Walker had arrived at Lee Townsend’s house that afternoon, the wind had picked up so much the whole place was swaying back and forth on its pilings.
“It’s like being on a boat, only you’re on land,” said Walker. “This bad boy was in motion.”
The refrigerator migrated five or so feet across the kitchen floor. Items were tumbling out of the cabinets and crashing to the ground. The group was scared, but indecisive about what to do next. Then, Walker noticed the water. It had come over the back levee and was steadily rising up the pilings below the house.
“We got to go,” Walker called to Townsend. “We cannot stay here any longer.”
There was no argument. The couple gathered a few belongings, and Walker once again bundled Scrappy-Doo into his arms. They ran out into the storm, crammed into Walker’s truck, and started off toward the Multiplex. It was just a few blocks away, but it took them about 15 minutes; the truck didn’t have windshield wipers — not that they would have helped anyway. The rain was blowing horizontally, and tree limbs, metal siding, and pieces of roof skidded across the road. Clumps of mud and grass the size of televisions smashed into the truck as it crept forward.
When they finally arrived, the three leapt out of the truck, ran upstairs and began pounding on the police station’s glass door. A few other residents had showed up too, figuring it was the safest place on the island.
Resweber brought them chairs, set them up in the hallway near the water fountain and bathroom, and told them they were welcome to take shelter there. But no more than two hours later, Walker felt an enormous suction of wind and heard the screech of ripping metal overhead.
He looked up to see the corrugated steel roof tearing off the building ― nearly 30 sheets of metal roofing lifted from the Multiplex in quick succession and blew away. Fiberglass insulation and rain began to swirl through the hallway. Walker, the Townsends and others who’d sought shelter in the Multiplex quickly funneled into the stairwell, clinging to the railing. Water was pouring in from the cavity above, but outside the double doors, 150-mile-per-hour wind was hammering the building.
With nowhere else to go, they huddled on the landing of the stairs. By the light of the glowing red “Exit” sign above them, they watched the concrete walls of the building flex and shudder, listening to the roar of the hurricane outside. Hour after grueling hour passed, until the noise began to abate. Finally, when the sunrise cast slivers of coruscating light beneath the doors, they knew they had made it through. They’d spent nearly 12 hours on the landing.
Outside, Grand Isle was barely recognizable. Downed power lines and telephone poles crisscrossed the main road in enormous tangles, and entire buildings were gone. Huge lakes of seawater stretched the width of the island.
Walker waded back to his property through water that reached his chest in places. He found his motorhome sitting in nearly three feet of water. Whip stood on some higher ground near the shed, soaking but okay.
Meanwhile, the chief returned to a house with no roof. He gathered some belongings and returned to the Multiplex, where he set up a bed in his office. For those who stayed behind, the enormity of the destruction was becoming clear: This was the worst hurricane anyone could remember.
Grand Isle wasn’t always the only inhabited barrier island on Louisiana’s coast. Nearby communities like Isle Derniere and Cheniere Caminada were once flourishing tourism and fishing hubs. But in 1856, a hurricane leveled Isle Derniere. A few decades later, the Great Hurricane struck Cheniere Caminada, killing 2,000 people. Neither community ever recovered.
But where other islands suffered fatal blows, Grand Isle has always rebuilt. The island’s resilience is a source of pride for its inhabitants. “As long as there’s one grain of sand in Grand Isle, we’re gonna plant the American flag, and we’re gonna stay strong,” Mayor David Camardelle often says.
It’s easy to see why residents want to stay. In calm weather, the gulf gently laps the wide beach as pelicans and migratory songbirds wheel on the breeze. The brightly painted houses have cheeky names like “Life’s a Beach” and “Law and Disorder.” Islanders can drive a golf cart to the nearby docks and cast a net for the evening’s shrimp boil. “It’s paradise,” Camardelle told HuffPost in September. “Why let it go in our lifetime?”
Every few years, however, the idyllic island life is shattered, and residents once again find themselves rebuilding. In these moments, locals remind each other to remain “Grand Isle Strong,” a sort of unofficial motto the island has adopted to describe its fortitude. The hurricanes, Resweber says, are “the price of living in paradise.”
This cycle of destruction and rebirth has long fortified the community. As weaker structures are blown or washed away, new, more robust ones rise in their place. Better building codes, levees, barriers and breakwaters have evolved to offer some improved protection.
Now the inhabitants of Grand Isle are once again confronting the limitations of their defenses. The island’s most recent barrier is a 7.7 mile-long levee known locally as the “burrito” due to the synthetic tube containing some 760,000 cubic yards of sand and clay that runs through its core. The U.S Army Corp of Engineers installed this much needed update to the 27-year-old original levee in 2010. Still, nearly every storm since has damaged the burrito. Ida burst it entirely.
Camardelle, who was first elected in 1997, is about as true-to-the-marrow a Grand Islander as you’ll find. His family members have been islanders for generations, forging their living from shrimp, crabs, and other bounty of the sea. The mayor was a shrimper before he became a city councilman in 1989. He still owns a shrimping boat.
Like everyone else on the island, Camardelle has strong ideas about what Grand Isle should do next. For him, the answer is rocks. He wants rocks everywhere, rising from the sea in a great ring around the island, like an inverted moat. He’s been pushing this idea for decades, but is optimistic that now he might finally be heard.
A recent face-to-face meeting with President Joe Biden was especially heartening.
“We need rocks,” Camardelle told the president. “He said, ‘All over Delaware, along the coast where I was raised, we have rocks.’ ... He’s a rock man, just like all of southern Louisiana, every mayor, every parish president all along the coast, anywhere there’s water. Rocks work.”
Rocks do work in one regard: They trap sand on the island, resulting in wider, more stable beaches. The wider beaches help dissipate wave energy, softening the impact of storm surges on the burrito levee, explained Rudy Simoneaux, chief engineer at the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA). But Simoneaux is skeptical that a rock wall, in itself, would do much to prevent storm surges during major hurricanes.
Jason Binet, a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who has worked extensively on Grand Isle, agrees.
“The breakwaters will not do anything to offset when the actual storm comes through,” he said. “But the breakwaters are there to protect the beach so that you can have a nice broad beach system in place.”
But the mayor may end up getting his rocks anyway. In the wake of Ida, CPRA and Army Corps of Engineers have been mapping out the island’s recovery. Among the proposed ideas is an expansion of existing beach nourishment projects, which would likely require the installation of up to 32 new rock breakwaters spanning the length of the island. But funding for that project has yet to be secured.
Camardelle hopes the federal government will listen to what the locals have to say on the matter.
“We’re the frontline, and nobody’s paying attention to us,” he said. “Every engineer has a different opinion. But we Cajun people; we live here.”
While Camardelle often feels overlooked, he also knows that the island holds a grim bargaining chip. As the largest of the barrier islands protecting Barataria Bay, Grand Isle plays a crucial role in softening the impact of storm surges that reach the coast.
“If this island goes away, New Orleans get ready,” he said. “You gonna have this surge.”
Louisiana has been debating what to do since Katrina. In 2005, the state formed the CPRA to coordinate efforts, and in 2017 released an ambitious, multi-decade roadmap that includes restoring two dozen barrier islands, as well as redesigning the Mississippi River’s levee system to allow sediment to return to the coastal wetlands.
Since 2007, the CPRA has secured $21.4 billion in funding, nearly half of the $50 billion it will require to complete the plan in the next 50 years. It has initiated 120 projects across Louisiana’s coast, including the construction of some 60 miles of new barrier islands and berms. The CPRA allocates funding to projects on a priority basis, and those priorities shift based on changing conditions in the region. Simoneaux says that Hurricane Ida has renewed focus on Grand Isle.
But it’s a race against the rising seas. “The future is not looking good,” said Törnqvist. “I mean, there is no long-term future for a place like Grand Isle. That’s unfortunately the truth.”
The Limits Of Resilience
It’s not just Grand Isle’s land that is disappearing. The island saw a nearly 16% decline in population between 2000 and 2010. Most of the island’s residents attribute that decline to Katrina in 2005, and newly adopted construction codes that made the cost of rebuilding prohibitively expensive for many residents. Although mandated building techniques like continuous-load path construction, hurricane straps, and break-away walls resulted in far more resilient structures, they were financially unrealistic for many.
Since 2010, the population has risen slightly, from 1,296 to 1,438, sometimes spiking to 9,000 in the summer with the arrival of the part-time residents. But Jerica and Devin Cheramie, who own the Grand Isle Supermarket, worry Ida will cause a far greater exodus than past storms.
“Now it’s even more expensive to rebuild here,” said Jerica Cheramie, 28, as she patiently rang up a line of 20 national guardsmen. “I really feel like a lot of locals that lost everything probably is not coming back.”
Insurance premiums on the island have also skyrocketed. A few years ago when the Cheramies were considering moving into a larger house on the island, they got a few insurance quotes for prospective properties. One company wanted $12,000 a year for just flood insurance ― not including wind or fire. Another was asking $17,000 for all three. In the end, they decided to stay in their “little bitty house,” where they pay $6,000.
There’s also no guarantee that insurance companies will continue to cover Grand Isle at all.
“Grand Isle has always been quite a challenge,” said James Donelon, Louisiana’s insurance commissioner. Donelon believes the only way to prevent insurance companies from fleeing high-risk areas like Grand Isle is to build more resilient structures. Those who can’t afford to do that may be out of luck. “For weaker properties,” Donelon admits, “I don’t have a solution.”
AIR Worldwide, an extreme event modeling firm that provides data to insurers, has predicted that insurance companies lost between $20 and $30 billion dollars as a result of Ida. Homeowners in high-risk communities like Grand Isle will almost certainly see those losses passed along as higher premiums, fewer options, and reduced coverage availability.
Even the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which FEMA administers to provide government-subsidized insurance policies for people in flood-prone areas, is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Congress created the NFIP in 1968 in response to the widespread flooding seen during Hurricane Betsy. The program was intended to fund itself through premiums, but since Katrina the NFIP has been operating at a loss, borrowing from the U.S. Treasury to cover claims. In 2017, Congress cancelled $16 billion of the NFIP’s debt in order to make payouts possible for victims of Hurricane Harvey.
On Oct. 1, the agency implemented a new risk assessment methodology known as Risk Rating 2.0 that, according to the agency’s own assessment, will see premiums spike for nearly 80% of policyholders. The NFIP — which still owes the Treasury over $20 billion, even after the bailout, due to more-frequent flooding events — conceived the update in 2019 as a way to make the program more sustainable. But the move has already garnered detractors.
Louisiana’s Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy wrote an open letter to FEMA on Sept. 22, requesting a delay in the new program. The senators claimed that nearly 20% of policyholders will drop out of the program in the next 10 years because of unaffordable premiums, and that “the NFIP may face long lasting reputational damage that will hurt the integrity and long-term solvency of the program.”
A bill House Democrats proposed in September contains a provision that would wipe away the NFIP’s debt entirely. But according to a recent study by the First Street Foundation, the NFIP would need to increase premiums by over 400% to avoid requiring future bailouts. Such a rate increase would inevitably cause outrage amongst homeowners.
In Grand Isle, FEMA’s reputation is already less than stellar. For uninsured or underinsured islanders, FEMA relief efforts like the Critical Needs Assistance program, which offers a one-time $500 payment, and the Individuals and Households program, which offers up to $33,000 for things like house repairs and personal property replacement, fall spectacularly short. In the past, the average payouts under these programs have been well below $10,000, a fraction of what it will cost to repair many of Grand Isle’s homes.
Keith Markley, a disaster survivor assistance specialist for FEMA, said the programs are not intended to return recipients to financial solvency, only to cover short-term housing needs.
“FEMA is not necessarily going to get you back to where you were before the storm,” he said. “FEMA strives to get you in a safe and secure environment, whether that’s at a hotel, a shelter, or the repair of your home to make it livable again.”
But many Grand Isle residents have lost faith in FEMA.
“I really don’t feel like they can handle this huge of a disaster,” said Kathy Anne Curtis, who had to move in with a friend after the home she rented was destroyed by Ida. Curtis has applied for aid but is doubtful she will receive a payout large enough to make an impact in her life. “That’s why a lot of people down here are used to handling things for themselves,” she said. “I don’t believe FEMA. I’m really not holding my breath on FEMA.”
Markley pointed to other relief programs, like low-interest disaster loans from the Small Business Administration, as more viable options for island residents who require more substantial funds to rebuild. But with the future still so uncertain, many islanders are hesitant to take on debt ― especially to repair structures that they can no longer afford to insure.
Walker fears that low-income residents like him and many of his friends will be priced out of Grand Isle, while the wealthier, part-time islanders with vacation cabins will stay.
He and Scrappy-Doo are planning to move to Missouri as soon as they can afford to.
The Tides That Bind
As residents weigh their options, the day-to-day business of rebuilding continues. National Guard troops from Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina, along with active duty troops from the 46th Engineer Battalion, arrived on Sept. 5 to begin repairs. They cut through some 2 feet of sand that had caked the surface of Highway 1, piling it in huge berms on the side of the road.
Bulldozers cleared the downed telephone poles, sheets of siding, splintered lumber, sodden furniture and piles of garbage. Electrical workers arrived to begin the daunting work of restoring power to the island. Residents of nearby parishes came in to cook lunch for all the workers.
“The community has really taken care of us for food,” said Captain Cristina Polomino, the commanding officer of the 46th Engineer company. “The locals cook jambalaya for us for lunch.”
The Cheramies evacuated to the family hunting cabin in Mississippi for the storm, and returned to find their grocery store inundated with half a foot of mud. They got to work cleaning, fired up the generators and reopened just two days later.
The grocery store has become something of an ad-hoc headquarters for the cleanup effort. On a Thursday afternoon 11 days after the storm, both Walker and Camardelle were perusing the aisles, while National Guardsmen coming off their work shifts were buying fishing poles and bait. There was a pervasive spirit of camaraderie: At one point a local resident announced that he would cover the entire tab of the 20 or so guardsmen waiting to check out as a gesture of gratitude.
In one aisle, Anita Wells, 35, was crouched near the rows of laundry detergent, wiping mud off the bottles one by one. She usually washes dishes at the nearby Starfish restaurant, but has picked up a few shifts at the grocery store to help the Cheramies get back on their feet.
The storm mostly spared Wells’ house, but it scattered her family. With the Grand Isle school closed indefinitely, Wells sent her 14-year-old daughter, Jordan, to Baton Rouge for the school year. She’d been gone for nearly two weeks by then, the longest they have ever been apart.
Jordan returned for a one-night visit a few days later. She sprinted across the muddy parking lot cluttered with military vehicles and water tankers, and fell into her mother’s arms. They held each other and cried.
“It was really rough on me,” said Jordan, wiping away tears. “Too far away from my mom. I’ve been with her like my whole life. And it breaks my heart, it really does.”
Jordan finds Baton Rouge to be chaotic and overwhelming. She has always lived in the country. The teenager dreams about relocating with her mother to Hawaii, or perhaps Florida.
“Florida gets hit with more hurricanes than we do,” Wells joked.
Wells plans to stay in Grand Isle until next summer, save up some money, and then leave, too. Displacement from the island feels inevitable, the result of forces far beyond anyone’s control.
“You’ll lose more and more land every hurricane season,” said Wells. “Before it’s over, the island will be down into the ocean.”
Drone footage credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images