Intense Storms, Insurance Crisis Force Residents of a Louisiana Community to Consider Leaving

The cost of living with intense storms is prompting some residents of St. John the Baptist Parish to consider leaving this already depopulating area west of New Orleans, which sits near sea level and has taken a pounding in recent years from a succession of floods and major storms.

Source: WSJ | Published on September 27, 2023

Louisiana hurricanes

Two years after Hurricane Ida struck the Gulf Coast, Winona and Charles Barnette are still struggling to repair their home here. The Category 4 storm toppled a tree that smashed through their roof and triggered flooding that brought 3 feet of water into their house.

The couple lived in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer for months and relied on relief money from the agency to pay for new appliances. They have battled with the company handling their home insurance to try to cover the costs of repairs and have ended up doing much of the work themselves—all while their premium has climbed sharply. Now they are thinking of giving up on the house altogether and moving to safer ground.

“We’re looking to sell it as soon as we can,” said Winona Barnette.

The cost of living with intense storms is prompting some residents to consider leaving this already depopulating area west of New Orleans, which sits near sea level and has taken a pounding in recent years from a succession of floods and major storms. Straddling the Mississippi River and bordered by swampland, St. John the Baptist Parish, which includes LaPlace, lost a higher percentage of people than any other county in the U.S. except California’s Lassen County—which has been hit by wildfires—from 2021 to 2022.

The loss of people in places such as St. John the Baptist Parish compounds Louisiana’s struggle with anemic population growth, which hinders the state’s economy, as other parts of the South are booming.

Parts of Louisiana and elsewhere along the U.S. coast have reached a tipping point, said Roy Wright, chief executive of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, an industry-backed research organization.

“The consequence of mother nature ramming at them has grown to a point at which it’s no longer incidental—it’s consequential to their family’s budget in any given year,” he said.

Bouts of extreme weather threaten homes and real-estate values and upend the property insurance market across the state. Louisiana’s next insurance commissioner—Republican Tim Temple, who is scheduled to assume the position in January—recently called for a special legislative session to address the issue.

Some states along the Gulf Coast and East Coast are confronting similar challenges. In Florida, which has the highest average home-insurance premium in the U.S., storms in recent years have devastated parts of the state, and some carriers have pulled back, in part because of what the insurance industry considers an abusive litigation environment.

Hurricanes including Ida, Laura, Delta and Zeta battered Louisiana in 2020 and 2021. Ida was the second-most-damaging storm ever to hit Louisiana, surpassed only by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Ida killed 30 people and caused at least $18 billion in damages.

Insurers paid out more than $23 billion in insured losses from more than 800,000 claims related to the two years of storm activity, according to a recent report by the Insurance Information Institute, an industry group.

The heavy losses prompted a pullback by insurers. Twelve that write home coverage in the state were declared insolvent between July 2021 and February 2023, and more than 50 stopped taking new policies in hurricane-prone parishes, the report said. The number of policies at the state’s insurer of last resort, Louisiana Citizens Property Insurance Corp., surged to about 132,000 policyholders from about 35,000 two years ago, according to the Louisiana Department of Insurance.

Future severe storms could drive away more insurers, said Jim Donelon, Louisiana’s longtime insurance commissioner, who is retiring. And soaring premiums could prompt more people to move away from places such as St. John the Baptist Parish, the Republican said.

“My expectation is that we are seeing what the future is,” Donelon said. “We can adapt and live with it. It’s not going to be inexpensive.” Asked how much insurance costs are pushing people to move away from parishes such as St. John the Baptist, he said, “significantly.”

St. John the Baptist Parish’s population declined 5.1% to 39,864 from 2021 to 2022, the largest percentage drop of any county in the South, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Of the 10 counties in the U.S. that lost the highest proportion of population over that year, four were Louisiana parishes.

Many homes in the working-class, unincorporated communities of LaPlace and nearby Reserve are empty, and for-sale signs abound. Construction equipment sits on some properties that are in various stages of repair.

Ida severely damaged the roof of the brick-and-siding home where Dana Jenkins and her family have lived for decades. Rain entered the house, seeping down its walls and soaking the insulation.

Their home and flood policies covered some repair costs but not all, and work is only partly completed. Jenkins, a home tutor for children with special needs and a mother of seven, said she spends much of her time talking with insurance adjusters and agents trying to secure reimbursements for mounting costs.

“It’s nothing to them, but this is my life,” Jenkins, 53, said recently as she stood in the sweltering Louisiana heat beside the trailer. “This is very stressful.”

Some of Jenkins’s older children live in the partially fixed house now, but she and her husband still live in a rented trailer on their front lawn. Her home-insurance rates have skyrocketed, from about $200 a month a few years ago to more than $1,000 a month now.

The family has too many roots in the community to leave, Jenkins said, but some neighbors have sold their homes and moved away. Others have simply left their houses unoccupied, with overgrown lawns and shuttered windows.

After Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, the state set up a $100 million fund that offered grants to insurers if they sold a certain number of policies in parts of the state closer to the Gulf and stayed in the state for at least five years. Earlier this year, Louisiana lawmakers approved a $55 million incentive fund to try to persuade more insurers to write policies in the state.

Christine Berry, a professor of risk management at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, said that long term, the state has to focus on strengthening homes against storms where possible and helping people move away from areas that will soon become uninhabitable because of rising sea levels and flooding risks.

“The mindset has to change,” Berry said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to spend billions of dollars on a new levee system to protect the area west of New Orleans, and more houses are being fortified to better withstand high winds, heavy rains and flooding through government programs.

But any effect those efforts may have in easing the insurance crisis would likely be years away. In addition to higher costs for home insurance, which typically covers only wind damage from storms, states such as Louisiana also are confronting rising flood-insurance premiums as a result of a recent overhaul of the pricing method used by the National Flood Insurance Program, the main provider of flood coverage in the U.S.

Under the new system, dubbed “Risk Rating 2.0,” some policyholders in especially vulnerable areas are facing big premium hikes that phase in over time for those with existing policies.

In Louisiana’s coastal Plaquemines Parish, average annual premiums are set to soar more than sixfold, to $5,431, from 2022 rates, according to recently released FEMA data. In St. John the Baptist Parish, they are set to double to $2,074.