This story was published on PBS NewsHour on June 5, 2012.
Raccourci Old River is known as one of the best fishing spots in Point-Coupee Parish, Louisiana. This community of more than 400 homes draws flocks of fishermen who spend days on the water and docks reeling in crappie, bluegill, and bass.
But it faces a major challenge. Old River sits outside the Morganza Levee system, so when the mighty Mississippi floods, rising water overwhelms it. In the past decade, Old River has flooded at least once every year.
In response, residents and those with seasonal fishing camps have mobilized to devise an innovative solution: turning their homes into floating rafts. Also known as “amphibious,” the houses stay grounded under ordinary circumstances, but when water inundates the land, they float.
There are numerous variations on the idea, but the underlying principle is usually the same: a steel frame fastened to the underside of the building foundation contains a buoyant material — large blocks of styrofoam, for example. Vertical guidance poles attached to the frame keep the house from moving any direction but up or down.
For this community of fishermen, it was a logical solution, said Buddy Blalock, a longtime resident at Old River and one of the first to convert his house. “I’ve done a fair amount of boating and sailing, so I said ‘Look, I’ll just make a boat out of it,’ and that’s what I did.”
It wasn’t long before others followed suit. Jacques LaCour owns the community’s mainstay bar and restaurant. He converted the building to be amphibious 10 years ago.
“Living on a river that floods seasonally every year, it was just common sense,” he said. “It’s an obvious solution to a problem.”
But at least for now, amphibious housing is not as obvious in most of Louisiana.
In the United States, floods are the costliest and most common natural disaster, according to FEMA, and Louisiana’s location make it even more flood-prone. Climate scientists predict flooding will become even more frequent as rising sea levels and rapidly subsiding land cause water to creep further inland from the Gulf of Mexico.
The traditional option for protecting homes from flooding here has been elevation onto stilts. But that option isn’t ideal, said Elizabeth English, a professor of architecture and engineering at the University of Waterloo.
“If you elevate your house to 3 feet, that will satisfy the law, but it won’t keep you safe,” she said, “But, then you put your house 8 feet up on stilts, and now how are you going to get your grandmother who is in a wheelchair up and down all those stairs?”
English began a nonprofit called The Buoyant Foundation to focus on retrofitting existing regular foundation houses into amphibious structures in Louisiana.
However, English says those who have promoted amphibious housing in Louisiana as a flood protection measure have been met with obstacles. LaCour and others in the region have cited difficulty in getting National Flood Insurance Protection for their properties after adding flotation fixtures. To be eligible for flood insurance, FEMA requires that structures in flood-prone areas be “adequately anchored to prevent floatation, collapse, or lateral movement.”
In an email to the NewsHour, a FEMA official said that homes must meet NFIP guidelines in order to receive flood insurance, but did not respond specifically to LaCour and English’s claims. The official added that the agency “doesn’t have any current involvement on the issue of amphibious housing.”
Although floating houses are still uncommon in the U.S., it’s not uncommon to see them in other parts of the world, such as the Netherlands, which sits mostly below sea level. For example, a string of houses constructed in 2005 on the Maas River in the Netherlands was cited by English as a pioneering case study of a planned amphibious community.
Though such broad-scale plans remain far off in Louisiana, residents at Old River say that so far, the floating homes have allowed them to keep living and working at their fishing spot.
“We let it float when the river rises and the we can open immediately when the river falls with no requirement for repairs,” LaCour said.