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Temporary housing planned for two parishes after Isaac

24th September 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

Homeowners in Plaquemines and St. John the Baptist parishes, hammered by Isaac in late August are eligible for temporary housing, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said last week. Residents who were evacuated after a spill at the Stolthaven liquid-storage terminal have added to housing needs in Plaquemines. Elsewhere, storm surge from Isaac inundated homes in St. Tammany and Jefferson parishes while Orleans and St. Bernard, protected by new levees, were mostly spared.

Caitlin Campbell, Plaquemines Parish spokeswoman, said Wednesday “our mapping-department team drove from Braithwaite to Whiteditch today on the east bank, our hardest hit area, and counted 334 homes, 151 trailers and 16 commercial buildings damaged by water. I would say most, if not all, of these homes were destroyed. They will have to be knocked down or gutted.”

She said 14 miles from Ironton to Diamond on the parish’s west bank were flooded too, and added “most of those homes are camps that were built up.”

Campbell described the magnitude of the event for the parish. “Nearly half of Plaquemines got water from Isaac, which has Plaquemines got water from Isaac, which has been much worse for us than Gustav was. It’s also been worse for us than Katrina was.”

Last week, Plaquemines Parish economic development director Stan Mathes said “the non-federal levee on the east bank protects to eight feet of water but Braithwaite experienced a 15-foot surge during Isaac. Most of the impact to property in the parish was on the east bank.”

He continued, saying “a gap of 18 miles exists between the new, federal St. Bernard Parish levee and our non-federal, east bank levee. The Army Corps and the federal government didn’t extend the St. Bernard levee because much of our east bank is lightly populated.” St. Bernard lies to the north of Plaquemines. Mathes said Wed­nesday “there’s a meeting about that today in Belle Chase.”

According to a Plaquemines Parish release about that September 19 Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority or state CPRA meeting in Belle Chasse, the parish is working with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers to get 18 miles of unprotected, non-federal levees on the east bank added to the Corps’ system. Plaquemines Parish President Bill Nungesser told the gathering about his recent conversation with President Barack Obama, asking that unprotected levees—particularly on the east bank—be included in federal protection.

State coastal director Garrett Graves and the Army Corps’ Colonel Edward Fleming participated in the Belle Chasse meeting.

Mathes said “Isaac also damaged homes up and down the west bank of Plaquemines because of the lack of a federal levee in the middle part of the parish.”

The Reverend Michael Jiles, of the 300-member Bethlehem Baptist Church in Braithwaite in Plaque­mines, said his home like others nearby suffered a double whammy from Isaac’s flooding and suspected chemical contamination from the Stolthaven storage terminal. On September 3, when Jiles returned to Braithwaite after evacuating to Houston with a caravan of relatives, he found his neighborhood cordoned off because it was within a mile of Stolthaven. “We were under mandatory evacuation,” he said. “The authorities only allowed us in for two hours in the evening, saying they had special personnel on hand during those times in case of a chemical spill.”

Jiles said “I’m staying with my son for now. A company wants to test soil in my yard at Braithwaite.” But he’s leery of Stolthaven’s owners, and won’t permit any testing until he’s read the fine print in an agreement he was given.

As for the Stolthaven terminal, Jiles said “years ago we we told it was for cooking oil. But we’ve smelled bad odors, and pollution alarms would go off at 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning.” The plant opened in 2001. “We phoned the plant after the alarms but they never really told us what was happening,” he said. “Now we hear that it may have leaked benzene and nine chemicals in all during Isaac.”

According to Stolt-Nielsen Li­mited, the Norwegian-Bermudean owner of Stolthaven, as much as 15 feet of floodwater toppled 142 railcars after levees failed. Floodwater damaged fourteen of the plant’s storage tanks, along with piping systems, and several tanks lost chemicals. The company said last week that protective boom was used to sop up liquid around the tanks, and content in damaged tanks was being moved to other tanks.

But according to a September 13 statement from the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, “a report made to the federal, National Response Center yesterday reveals that Stolthaven released over 191,000 gallons of benzene, styrene, toluene, xylene and other chemicals into the floodwaters near Braithwaite” during Isaac.

Last Wednesday, the state’s Dept. of Environmental Quality Secre­tary Peggy Hatch said air and water monitoring at Stolthaven hasn’t revealed anything harmful to the public. But she said the spill will be cleaned up, and monitoring continues. DEQ has penalized the company $12,190 for failing to report its emergency in a timely manner, she said. “As the investigation continues, there will likely be more enforcement actions, with the possibility of fines up to $32,500 per day for each potential violation,” she said.

Thousands of homes in St. John the Baptist Parish were affected by Isaac, Parish President Natalie Robottom said Friday. “Most were damaged, rather than destroyed,” she said. “Based on preliminary information, about 6,000 homes have some level of damage. About 4,000 homes have less than $20,000 in damage, just under 2,000 homes have damage between $20,000 and $40,000, and at least 32 have damage of over $40,000.”

She said “the majority of these homes are in the LaPlace area in subdivisions between Airline Highway and I-10. Also, homes were damaged south of Airline Highway in Reserve and Old LaPlace.”

On September 15, Robottom signed an order allowing temporary housing for residents and relief workers, and requested FEMA to provide mobile homes. She said displaced residents were staying with family and friends and over 600 residents were in hotels outside of the parish.

While in Washington, D.C. seeking federal assistance, Robottom released a statement Wednesday saying that predictions for Isaac, barely a Category One hurricane, fell short of the blow that St. John received. The parish was left vulnerable after levees were built elsewhere. “Residents of our parish have insisted for years that providing levees and pumping systems to our east would cause flood waters to invade unprotected St. John,” she said, and added “they were right.”

Ray Perez, FEMA spokesman in Baton Rouge, said Thursday “FEMA has approved a request to institute a temporary housing program for St John the Baptist and Plaquemines parishes. We’re working with the state to determine exact needs for temporary units in the two parishes. We’re contacting residents to assess their housing requirements.”

Perez continued “depending on needs, we’ll bring mobile units into the two parishes. We’re looking for housing solutions, including available rental opportunities.”

Meanwhile, homes in St. Tam­many Parish were hurt by storm surge in Mandeville, Madisonville, Lacombe, Slidell and elsewhere, and by flooding from the Pearl River and the Bogue Chitto River. A September 7 parish report said 700 single-family homes sustained flood damage and another 22 had major flood losses. Additionally, 238 houses in St. Tammany suffered structural damage and two had major structural losses. A dozen of the parish’s apartment buildings were also harmed.

In Slidell, Mayor Freddy Drennan said last week “approximately 515 structures here suffered flooding. Primarily, they were in Olde Towne, Palm Lake, Camellia Drive and Slidell Addition.”

Kriss Fortunato, Jefferson Parish spokeswoman, said 175 homes in that parish were reported to have sustained $15,000 or more in damages each, according to FEMA, though the numbers weren’t necessarily complete as of last week. Sixty of the 175 home are not insured. Within the parish, the town of Jean Lafitte was hit hard by Isaac, as it was by other recent storms.

St. Bernard President David Peralta said last week “homes within the new levee structures here held up well, and I called Colonel Fleming at the Army Corps the day after the storm to thank him for that.” New levees and gates in the parish were completed last year and this year, he said. “We still have a large area outside of levee protection, but most of those homes were constructed under new building codes enacted in recent years and they held up well. Our low-lying, commercial fishing buildings, which are right on the water, and our marinas and docks, suffered the most damage.”

In New Orleans, crews surveyed the city for damage after Isaac, and 44 properties are in the process of being demolished by a city contractor, according to Mayor Land­rieu’s office last week. Another 11 properties with harm from the storm, identified by Code Enforce­ment and neighbors, will be demolished. Among the structures slated for demolition are three historic houses that were earlier moved to make way for the Louisiana State University-Vete­rans Administration hospital complex, but weren’t properly secured and were destroyed by Isaac. Those structures are located at 1930 and 1936 Bienville St. and 1726 North Villere.

Louisiana insurance commissioner John Donelon predicts that homeowners’ insurance rates won’t increase after Isaac. “I’m fairly certain of that,” he said last week. Homeowners’ rates weren’t impacted by Gustav, a 2008 hurricane that inflicted more damage in Louisiana than Isaac. Katrina, Rita and Gustav were all costlier than Isaac, he said.

What will people who lost their homes do? “Many Plaquemines residents will try to rebuild,” Stan Mathes said. “They always have in the past. Most homeowners here have flood insurance, property owners are eligible for FEMA and Small Business Administration assistance, plus the parish is trying to help them.”

This article originally published in the September 24, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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