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State, feds crack down on home elevation contractors

31st October 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

To comply with new building codes, many of the city’s houses need to be raised, but with at least two, local elevation fatalities in less than five years, the work is not for amateurs. Last summer, the Jindal Administration suspended wayward contractors and also put two grant-program employees on leave.

The state’s Office of Community Development administers a $750 million Hazard Mitigation Grant Program for Road Home applicants who want to elevate their dwellings.

Greg Abry, president of Louisiana Shoring Association, an industry group, said “there were about 15 foundation contractors in greater New Orleans before Katrina, and of those only about five of us actually elevated houses. Since Katrina, 680 contractors are registered with Louisiana’s HMGP program, though some of them were suspended by the state this summer.”

Along with firms legitimately participating in the HMGP, others have unlawfully tapped into its money, with consequences for homeowners, Abry said. He is a sixth-generation owner of Abry Brothers, the oldest house-raising company in the nation and the second-oldest business of any kind in New Orleans.

So what’s gone wrong in home elevations in recent years? In New Orleans East, a house on Mercier St. collapsed on a worker on April 18, killing him, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And in Kenner, a worker was crushed and died when a home fell off its jacks in a March 2007 home raising there, said Tamithia Shaw, Kenner’s acting code enforcement director. In August of this year, another Kenner house collapsed during an elevation, but no one was injured.

In an incident last month in Gretna, a home cracked across its center while being elevated, according to the Jefferson Parish Inspection and Code Enforcement Division.

Contractors aren’t the only ones at fault, however. Abry said a whistle blower lawsuit filed by Shaw Group employees in Baton Rouge civil court in June alleges that state employees sold lists of names of homeowners, interested in having their houses elevated under the HMGP, to contractors.

The Shaw Group helps manage the HMGP and because of the program’s size, Shaw staff in recent years were added to the Office of Community Development.

Christina Stephens, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Office of Community Development, said OCD operations manager David Knight and the state’s HMGP production team leader Courage Idusuyi were put on paid leave in the summer while an internal investigation was conducted. “The handling of homeowner documents is being investigated by OCD and other state agencies in coordination with the federal Dept. of Homeland Security,” she said. Meanwhile, “HMGP staff have been retrained in document privacy.”

Abry explained the need for raising homes. New building codes were approved by the state in 2008, and houses now have to be above a base flood elevation that varies by area, depending on land surveys, he said. Homes also have to be constructed at least three feet above the street or curb level.

“Since Katrina, government agencies have offered several different grants, with $30,000 each provided separately under two programs—the federal Increased Cost of Compliance or ICC and the Road Home elevation grant,” Abry said. “But in many cases, $30,000 isn’t enough to compensate a homeowner for making a house functional at the new height.” Before a raised house can be lived in, plumbing has to be reworked and utilities connected.

“Louisiana’s HMGP will pay up to $100,000 to elevate houses non-compliant with codes,” he said. “This grant is used in conjunction with ICC and Road Home elevation grants to offset the costs of an elevation.”

However, Abry said “the stars and planets have to align for a homeowner to get the maximum, combined amount from several programs.”

Abry said the HMGP elevation program helps homeowners avoid future flooding. “However, problems developed with unqualified contractors coming in from other professions—tree trimming, accounting and even bar tending—and from other states to start elevation businesses,” he said. Raising houses requires training and expertise, and companies have to be licensed and bonded. “You can’t just jack up a house and expect it to remain stable in the future,” he said. “Unfortunately, lots of houses elevated since Katrina under Road Home and other programs have fallen or collapsed, and deaths have occurred.”

OSHA on October 14 gave Coastal Shoring, LLC in Jefferson, La. until October 26 to abate or fix problems at the New Orleans East home where a worker died on April 18, according to Juan Rodriguez with the U.S. Dept. of Labor in Dallas. The agency said the house had been raised before cribbing, or temporary framework, was installed, and the building had shifted and collapsed. OSHA suggested supporting each beam under the house with adequate piling. OSHA also said it would likely penalize Coastal $4,900 for not providing a safe worksite in April.

“Bobby Jindal has taken a number of steps to clean up problems with unlicensed or unskilled contractors involved in the HMGP,” Abry said. An executive order by Governor Jindal on Aug. 19 directed the Louisiana State Licensing Board for Contractors to suspend those who failed to meet expectations of the HMGP or didn’t adhere to construction standards or building codes. After that order, seven elevation contractors were placed on probation by the licensing board in mid September. Coastal Shoring got three months’ probation.

Abry said raised houses have gone in and out of fashion. His ancestor John Abry, an experienced building mover and shoring contractor, arrived here in the 1830s from Germany to escape famine during an influx of Germans to the area. “The city grew out from the French Quarter, the highest part of town, and expanded into outlying areas that were low and prone to flooding,” Abry noted. “Houses built in the 1700s and 1800s were elevated on raised piers.”

Canals and pumping stations were built in the 1800s to drain low-lying areas. “The system wasn’t perfect and occasionally things flooded,” Abry said. Urban growth continued into low areas in Mid City, Fontainebleau and Jefferson Parish.

“They built the Mississippi River levees, and improved the canal system and pumping stations,” he said. “People became confident, began building on the ground and turning their basements into living areas.” Lots of slab houses were erected. Then came Katrina, the levees and pumps failed, and every house flooded in some neighborhoods.

Over generations, Abry said “our company has raised and moved many historic buildings, including the Pitot House and Antoine’s Restaurant—which dates to the 1840s. We moved the Sterns’ House from Longue Vue Gardens in Metairie by mules, and elevated the Tulane Alumni House. We do projects where we feel we can do a good job, and aren’t compelled to take on a whole batch of houses at once or aggressively market our services.”

At the State Licensing Board for Contractors, spokesman Doug Traylor said 7,281 contractors are licensed for building construction across the state, and of those 140 are qualified for rigging, house moving and wrecking, with smaller numbers approved for foundation work.

This article was originally published in the October 31, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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