A year later, LaPlace’s scars fading

The water was all the way up to the hood of their pickup when Ernest Robinson and his wife, Jeanette, decided it was time to evacuate their one-story, brick home in LaPlace’s Cambridge subdivision. They left in a hurry.

“The only thing we had was our medicine and the clothes we had on,” Robinson, 64, recalled of that afternoon — Aug. 29, 2012, a half-day after the slow-moving Hurricane Isaac made landfall west of Grand Isle.

When the Robinsons returned days later, the water was still 3 feet deep in the home where they’ve lived for three decades. In a ritual familiar to many locals, Ernest Robinson spent months gutting the house, replacing everything from 4 feet on down. He put in new walls and floors; replaced the collapsed ceiling in the bathroom; installed new cabinets; purchased new furniture and appliances. The roof still needs work, he said.

“I’ve had to slowly rebuild this whole house, piece by piece,” Robinson said, standing in his living room and thumbing through dozens of photographs that show the home in successive stages of disrepair and renewal.

The Robinsons are better off than many of their neighbors: They were among the roughly 30 percent of LaPlace’s 30,000 or so residents who had flood insurance. The community is not in a zone where lenders require homeowners to carry flood insurance, meaning most choose to forgo it.

Even with a flood-insurance policy, Robinson said he’s staring at a $55,000 gap between what the insurance company has agreed to pay and what fixing his 3,000-square-foot house will cost him in the end. The Robinsons have spent about $37,000 of their own money so far.

“I’m still fighting the insurance company now for a lot of things that they were supposed to pay for that they have not yet paid for,” he said about his private insurer, which the Robinsons plan to drop as soon as they can.

“Even though we’ve been paying insurance on this house for 31 years, we weren’t compensated for what we needed to put it back together, and that kind of saddens us,” he said.

While Hurricane Isaac likely did more damage to St. John the Baptist Parish than any storm in history, the scars it left are somewhat faint a year later in LaPlace, the parish’s most populous community and the one that suffered the most.

Though a mere Category 1 storm, Isaac lingered along the Louisiana coast for days before making landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River on Aug. 29, 2012, bringing an outsized surge with it. The storm’s size and path pushed much of that water into western Lake Pontchartrain and right into St. John Parish, which has no lakefront levees.

The water took residents by surprise — not only was Isaac seen as a relatively minor threat, such extensive flooding had never occurred in St. John. Many parish residents theorized that the $14.5 billion in improvements made to the New Orleans-area levee system after Hurricane Katrina left the surge nowhere to go but LaPlace. But a post-Isaac review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that the improved levees in the city “could not have significantly influenced” flooding elsewhere.

As devastating as the storm was, St. John wasn’t hurt in the same way that New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish were after 2005’s levee failures, when tens of thousands of homes stewed in seawater for weeks. In St. John, grocery stores in LaPlace reopened days after the storm passed; most of the power was quickly restored, and a number of the district’s public schools were quick to reopen.

That said, a couple of the most visible reminders of the storm are the two schools that were badly damaged and have yet to be restored. In fact, the rebuilding of Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School in LaPlace — expected to require a complete demolition — and East St. John High School in Reserve has yet to even begin. The work, pegged at about $65 million, stalled after School Board members spent most of the last year squabbling over choosing a firm to award a $13 million contract for overseeing the work. The board recently voted to start the process over.

Of the roughly 7,000 homes that flooded, repairs are complete on about 95 percent complete, with a few hundred homes still awaiting renovation, officials said.

St. John Parish Assessor Whitney Joseph Jr. said the parish tax roll is $20 million smaller than it would have been were it not for Isaac, translating to a drop of about 5 percent. As it happens, the tax base actually grew by 11 percent from the previous year because of expiring industrial tax exemptions and new businesses opening, Joseph said.

Many of the homes still needing work are in the hard-hit Cambridge subdivision where the Robinsons live. There, most homeowners hadn’t opted for flood protection, and many didn’t have the money in hand to cover repairs. Blue-tarped roofs are still a common sight.

Collecting insurance money for those who had coverage, and federal disaster relief for those who didn’t, has perhaps been the biggest hurdle. “That process has been unreasonably slow, according to the homeowners who I’ve talked to,” state Rep. Randal Gaines, D-LaPlace, said.

It’s not just homeowners who have faced a long climb back to normalcy. Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency knocked on doors of more than 700 St. John businesses; nearly a third of them responded to a FEMA survey in the weeks after the storm, and 87 reported significant damage from Isaac, said Torri Buckles, St. John’s director of economic development.

Two businesses were total losses, and 18 businesses closed since Isaac have yet to reopen, though parish officials would not identify them.

Most of the affected businesses are mom-and-pop operations, according to Buckles, including a number of restaurants along the U.S. 51 corridor. The parish has given some restaurant owners an opportunity to sell food at special events in the parish, using money from a $215,000 grant the parish received from BP funds set aside after the 2010 oil leak.

Real estate rebounding

The real-estate market in LaPlace was showing signs of weakness before Isaac arrived, and there were fears last year that the sudden blighting of hundreds of houses could send it into a tailspin.

But that hasn’t happened. There’s been no noticeable increase in foreclosures, several real-estate experts said.

Average home prices in LaPlace, meanwhile, are down substantially: They were around $129,000 before the storm, and they’re down to about $104,000 since, according to Frank Trapani, a regional manager with Latter & Blum Inc. But the drop that owes in part to the fact that many people have chosen to sell their damaged homes rather than fix them.

The per-square-foot price of damaged homes has dropped by about 56 percent, from $73 per square foot to $41, according to Wade Ragas, a former finance professor at the University of New Orleans who tracks sales data. “That’s very similar to what happened in Chalmette after the storm (Katrina) there,” Ragas said.

Prices for LaPlace properties that were undamaged by Isaac seem to be unaffected, Ragas said.

“People are still buying in the LaPlace market, and the rate of sales activity is about the same as in 2012,” Ragas said.

Also on the positive side, homes in St. John are spending on average of 86 days on the market, 17 days less than the typical listing time in the year leading up to Isaac.

Another hidden upside: The influx of money flowing into the parish from insurance proceeds has been “somewhat of an economic stimulus” and helped improve housing stock that was in many cases starting to look worn, Trapani said.

“People are now recognizing it’s somewhat of a positive,” he said. “It’s almost like having a market of brand-new houses, with exception of a few that panicked after the flood and sold their homes and moved on” and sold their homes as-is instead of repairing them.

“We’ve got a product out there today whose value has been enhanced based on the fact that it’s updated product instead of 40-year-old product, so it’s kind of a win-win for the people that were challenged by the water and took their money and ran,” Trapani said. “They’re happy, and the people that bought them at a discounted value now have a product to put on the market that looks new.”

Trapani says St. John retains the appeal it has long had for first-time homebuyers, particularly people who may be priced out of suburban New Orleans.

“Comparing what you can find in Kenner and Metairie to what you can find in LaPlace, it’s amazing,” he said. “The quality of home and the quality of community, there’s something wrong with you if you pass up that opportunity thinking it might flood again today.”

Volunteer effort

Just as New Orleans was flooded with volunteers from around the country after Katrina, LaPlace has benefited mightily from an army of good Samaritans.

Nearly 1,500 volunteers have pitched in more than 34,000 hours helping clean, gut, paint, repair and rebuild homes, said Neal Bernard, a pastor at the New Wine Christian Fellowship in LaPlace. Bernard chairs the St. John The Baptist Parish Long-Term Recovery Group, a collaboration among local faith-based and nonprofit groups, as well as government agencies and business that have provided cash as well as building materials or labor.

Bernard said the effort has helped more than 1,220 homeowners, giving the average homeowner about $886 in free labor. About 250 more repair projects are still on tap, including 50 roofs that need to be redone, 50 homes that need wallboard and another 40 or so waiting for new flooring and cabinets. Bernard believes the relief effort can handle about 20 jobs per month. The group recently hired 10 workers who will fix homes for the next six months, Bernard said.

“If it weren’t for a lot of the volunteer people that came into these communities, we wouldn’t be as far as we are now,” Ernest Robinson said, gesturing at some of his Cambridge neighbors’ homes.

Volunteers haven’t been the only familiar post-disaster sight around St. John Parish. Isaac also brought a flood of contractors, not all of them trustworthy.

Shandelyn Smith, who lives across from the Robinsons in the Cambridge area, said she placed her trust in a builder referred by a neighbor. Her house took on more than 2 feet of water, she said. The contractor took a check for $13,800 in November, but didn’t complete the work he promised. Two months later, when she finally tracked him down again, he said she’d have to pony up more money for him to come back. She cut another check, this time for $13,100.

“It would always turn to arguments,” Smith said. “I thought he was professional, so nice, and I trusted him with all my heart.”

This time, more of the work was done. But even then, it was faulty, she said: Walls were painted the wrong color; ceilings were re-plastered without covering the fans, which were then ruined; an attic door was plastered shut. Last Wednesday, the remnants of the shoddy bathroom work were on the curb: A tub Smith said was too small and plastic walls that were poorly installed.

Standing in her kitchen, with panels of Sheetrock leaning up against a wall behind her, Smith described her predicament: She lost almost everything, and now she has about $14,000 left in insurance proceeds. A new air conditioner to replace her storm-soaked unit will cost $6,000; new windows, $4,000; new cabinets, another $3,500.

Now that she’s got a new contractor, Smith hopes to move back in by the end of the month.

Still, “I should’ve been back by December,” she said.

Smith called the Sheriff’s Office about her first contractor; it’s not clear whether deputies plan to go after him.

But plenty of cases have been reported. The St. John Sheriff’s Office has received about 75 reports of contractor fraud since last September, department spokesman Dane Clement said, noting that sheriffs’ deputies have made several arrests, and more are expected.

“We continue to get reports weekly,” Clement added.

Unprecedented water

Penny Bordelon and her husband, Van, were shocked when water began rising in the home near River Road where they’ve lived for a decade.

“All of the storms within that 10-year span, which has probably been five or six storms, we never had a mud puddle on our property,” Bordelon said.

That changed suddenly about 10 p.m. Aug. 29. The couple and their two teenage sons began grabbing what they could carry: A coin collection, school bags, shoes. “Within 15 minutes, we were about shin-deep” in the house, she said.

By the next day, the water outside their home was chest-high, and the family had to return by boat.

“We just stood there and cried because it was so devastating,” she said.

The Bordelons didn’t have flood insurance.

“We had never heard of anybody having water in their house. In LaPlace, that’s not really common,” Penny Bordelon said.

She ruefully recalled having received a price quote on coverage a week before Isaac. It would’ve cost about $364 annually, and saved her tens of thousands of dollars.

The Bordelons figure they had about $110,000 in damage. Federal disaster relief paid out $31,400, the maximum allowed, she said. A few nonprofit groups helped out, with volunteers installing Sheetrock and paying for doors, work that might have cost the family about $20,000 otherwise. Still, that left a gap of about $51,000, she said.

Everything in the house that was less than 4 feet off the ground had to go.

“It’s enough to ruin just about everything you own,” she said of the floodwaters.

Plenty of items that were higher up, like electronics, clocks, a stereo, were damaged by fumes from the humidity and also had to go.

They moved back into the four-bedroom home in January. Except for window sills and baseboard that still needs caulking, and a second coat of paint on the trim, the work is about done, she said.

“We still have a lot of things I haven’t replaced,” Penny Bordelon said. “We go through our house, and it’s like, where’s such-and-such? It’s constant. My kids are starting school right now, and just yesterday, ‘Where’s our bag with all the baseball stuff?’ We don’t have that anymore. It’s like a daily thing.”

As rough as the last year has been for St. John, some residents, like Trapani, the real estate manager, are trying to take the long view.

“For those of us who lived there for 40-plus years, we see it as just an inconvenience,” he said.

“I don’t want to minimize it, but it is not an earth-shattering event that’s going to cause LaPlace or St. John the Baptist Parish to go away.”