Editor’s note: Christine Arceneaux, a Florida Parishes reporter for The Advocate, is a LaPlace resident whose home was among those flooded by Hurricane Isaac.
LAPLACE — Two weeks after Hurricane Isaac surprised LaPlace residents, many have turned from cleaning up flooded homes to trying to cope with “strangers” they see prowling their neighborhoods while loading up trucks with couches, lawn mowers, appliances, television sets and just about anything else of value they can haul away.
“That has been the biggest problem or call for service we have had to deal with since the storm,” Sheriff Mike Trege said.
The St. John the Baptist Parish Sheriff’s Office has received more than 100 calls from residents about people taking debris from other people’s homes, Trege said.
He said that while deputies are responding to calls from residents, most of the complaints involve scavengers picking through discarded items.
“Looting is perceived as kicking in your door and taking items,” Trege said. “Scavengers are going through discarded items.”
Those words don’t do much to comfort Doug Botts, who said he sees more and more “outsiders” flood into his neighborhood every day. He and his wife spent most of Wednesday cleaning out their flooded home on Belle Grove drive.
“Last night, there was a U-Haul backed up on the street and people were just taking whatever they could,” Botts said. “As soon as it gets dark, they come out like roaches. Everything on the curb is questionable, but I have stuff on my front porch that I’m trying to dry.”
Just as many people living in the neighborhood off Main Street, or Old 51 as it is also known, Botts and his wife, Erin, left in a hurry with little more than the clothes on their backs when backwater flooding from the nearby Lake Pontchartrain Basin surged into neighborhood homes within minutes.
“I don’t understand how the water came up so fast,” said Erin Botts, adding that in the 32 years the couple has lived in the home, it had never been flooded.
“We had water from Juan, but it has never flooded like this,” Doug Botts said.
The sentiment was the same throughout much of LaPlace as people nearly finished with gutting their swamped homes and tearing out flooring were quickly tiring of “strangers” coming into the parish.
“A lot of them are respectful if they see you, but if they don’t see you, they scavenge through everything. It’s ridiculous and it’s very unhealthy. It’s nasty,” LaPlace resident Brenda Hebert said.
Hebert, who has lived in her home in Ridgewood subdivision for 15 years with her husband, Gerard, her son, Justin, and her daughter, Jessica, is living in a travel trailer in her front yard and has continually watched people who don’t live in her neighborhood come by and take people’s property, some before flood insurance adjusters have even arrived to survey the damage.
“One ran into my house the other day,” Hebert said.
“They’re just ravishing through everything,” Hebert said. “They take anything and everything. When they see the police come, they run. They either know it’s wrong or they are illegal aliens.”
Hebert and her family retreated to their attic about 2:30 p.m. Aug. 29 when the floodwaters entered their home and quickly rose more than 2 feet. While they initially resisted evacuation help offered by the Louisiana National Guard, they finally agreed to leave about 3:30 p.m. when they realized the floodwater wasn’t going to recede anytime soon. In addition to a flooded house, they lost three cars in the high water.
Hebert said while her plans are to be back in her home by Christmas, the process of cleaning up and deciding on the future haven’t been easy.
“I don’t know how long we’ll be able to tolerate living here,” she said, referring to the travel trailer. “We’re at ‘A’ right now and we don’t know how to get to ‘B.’ ”
Hebert said one of the hardest parts of dealing with the aftermath of Isaac was returning to New Wine Christian Fellowship to apply for disaster food stamps. More than 3,000 people, including the Heberts, were brought to the church after they were rescued. They remained at the church until relatives picked them up.
J.B Allen, 74, sat on his front porch Wednesday, most of his salvageable belongings are placed inside of his gutted home in River Forest subdivision until a storage unit could be delivered.
“We’re just trying to make it just like everyone else,” Allen said.
Allen said he isn’t sure whether he will return to his home, partly because he hasn’t seen his insurance settlement yet.
“I won’t know nothing until I get the papers back with the amount,” Allen said. “If I could get it raised, I’ll probably stay. But the children don’t want me to move.”
Troy Lewis loaded what he and his wife could save from their flooded home into a moving truck before taking it to storage. Lewis was leaving the next day to work for the next 28 days offshore.
“That’s the hardest part, just relying on other people,” Troy’s wife, Ikeine, said.
The Lewises, who wound up with about a foot of water in their home, were still looking this week for a new home to rent, he said.
While some LaPlace residents wait for flood insurance payments to pay for repairing their flooded homes, others said they wonder why the Federal Emergency Management Agency hasn’t come to their aid by now.
On Tuesday, deputies arrested Mark Knight, 46, when his claim was denied at an assistance center, a claims processor told authorities. Troopers said he returned to his vehicle and grabbed a loaded AR-15 assault rifle, along with other weapons.
Investigators went to Knight’s trailer home in LaPlace on Wednesday and removed 13 large pythons. The sheriff’s office said Knight brought an “arsenal” to the food stamps site and left a suicide note in his home.
“It’s happening because of the way FEMA is treating people,” said Dawnita Michael, who lived on Ibis Court in a home she once shared with eight relatives, including her three children and her parents, Khalashia and Khalashia’s 1-year-old son. The family of eight has been living at a hotel in Baton Rouge since the storm and now has to travel back and forth to LaPlace in an effort to clean up the house and salvage what little they can.
The deadline for hotel assistance from FEMA is Sept. 16, and as of Thursday afternoon, the family said they received little help from FEMA and money is running low.
“We were denied housing assistance,” Michael said.
Two FEMA representatives surveyed the damage of the home, owned by Michael’s parents, which also included the family’s flooded vehicles, and told them they should be receiving assistance in a matter of days, Michael said.
Ray Perez, a spokesman for FEMA’s office in Baton Rouge, said he was “prohibited by law from discussing her particular case” but that he was aware of Michael’s situation.
“I know our folks have reached out to this family,” he said, adding there are “a lot of reasons” why the family hasn’t received assistance yet.
One of those reasons is the head of household rule, Perez said, and the family would have to prove in some way that Michael was renting from her parents in order to receive assistance. Given that, however, he added that the final word on the family’s predicament has not been determined yet.
“They need to keep working with FEMA and see what else is available to them,” Perez said.
As most LaPlace residents try to rebuild and pick up the pieces of their lives, the Sheriff’s Office will be ready, Trege said. He plans to take extra measures to ensure that looters don’t try to steal building supplies and other items as residents trickle back.
“That’s when the next phase of security will start,” the sheriff said. “We are going to be ready.”