We recently wrote about Melanie Martinez, a school bus driver from Plaquemines, La. who lost her home to Hurricane Isaac last month.
It wasn’t the first time. Since the age of 3, Martinez, now 50, has seen five different homes destroyed by Mother Nature, first with Hurricane Betsy (1965), then Juan (1985), then George (1998) and Katrina (2005).
Though she’s been called America’s ‘Unluckiest Woman,’ hers is a story that has fallen on few sympathetic ears.
Not only is Plaquemines located on a peninsula that’s nearly entirely surrounded by swamplands, it’s about two or three miles outside the protective barrier built around nearby New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.
Martinez has moved further North with each new storm, but five hurricanes haven’t been enough to scare her to drier land.
Apart from family ties, money has played a large role in Martinez’s reaction to storms.
“These are our roots,” she said. “After Katrina, we lived in Arkansas for a year. We liked it up there but it wasn’t home. We were away from our kids.”
Martinez has three adult children, including a daughter whose one-bedroom apartment has been converted into temporary living quarters for Martinez, her husband, Philip, and her elderly mother.
Philip’s work as a commercial fisherman—he recently retired after becoming disabled—was another reason they kept the family near the water. “That’s mostly why we stayed, but we kept moving further up,” she said. “I think people are thinking we stayed in the same house [through all five hurricanes]. It’s not the same house.”
When she returned to Louisiana after Katrina, Martinez intended to purchase a new home within the flood barrier.
“But there weren’t many to choose from and the prices were so high on gutted houses,” she said. “I couldn’t find anything for under $100,000.”
That’s partially because new ordinances require all new residential and commercial buildings to be 10 to 15 feet above designated flood levels. The Plaquemines home she settled on was three feet above the flood level, but the same requirements don’t apply to existing homes.
Terri Cercovich, a Louisiana native and managing editor of the Plaquemines Gazette, has seen firsthand the ties that bind residents to the land.
“I read somewhere that Pennsylvania and Louisiana have the highest rates of people born there who wind up dying there,” she said. “I assume it’s cultural, but I also think people are tired. There’s a ‘Katrina fatigue’ and it’s happening all over again [with Isaac]. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, move,’ but what if you’re an oyster fisherman like my family? How are they supposed to move to the suburbs of New Orleans and be two hours away from their boats?”
But given the damage from Isaac––Martinez could salvage nothing from her home and all her cars were totaled––and her husband’s departure from fishing, she might consider moving after all.
“I’d like to move further up North a little bit, like Mississippi,” she said. “It’s a family affair. [My daughter] doesn’t want us to leave … but it’s just a little crowded.”
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