A year after Hurricane Isaac pushed western Lake Pontchartrain into St. John the Baptist Parish’s unprotected flank and inundated its largest community, leaving tens of millions of dollars in damage, more than 100 residents joined local and state officials Thursday to mark the storm’s anniversary and reflect on the battered area’s recovery.
Of the roughly 7,000 homes that flooded, locals say about 95 percent have been repaired, with a couple hundred properties still awaiting renovation. About 70 percent of LaPlace’s 30,000 residents did not have flood insurance, slowing work in some areas and leaving many homeowners in debt.
“This recovery effort is going to take a while,” said Mark Riley, deputy director for disaster recovery at the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “It’s not going to happen tomorrow. We’re going to be here next year, and we’re still going to be talking about the recovery.”
In an hourlong ceremony Thursday at the St. John Community Center, parish officials took turns addressing the crowd, applauding residents for getting repairs done quickly and the federal government for renewing a long-dormant effort to reduce the area’s risk in future storms. Many credited the nearly 1,500 volunteers who helped work tens of thousands of man-hours to clean, gut, paint and repair homes in the months after.
“It took everyone together to get us to the point where we are right now. We’re not completely back, but we’re not a long way off,” said St. John Parish Councilman Lennix Madere, who got choked up.
“You know, they say a man’s not supposed to cry, but it’s hard when you think about what happened to St. John Parish,” Madere added.
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. The storm’s large size and northwesterly path pushed much of that water into western Lake Pontchartrain and right into the parish, which has no lakefront levees.
On Thursday, St. John President Natalie Robottom expressed relief at the recent announcement by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it was moving forward on studying an $881 million, 18-mile levee that would protect the parish from the lake’s surge.
The corps’ long-awaited plan would reduce storm risk to nearly 7,700 structures, following a route along the north side of Interstate 10 from the Bonnet Carre Spillway levee and connecting with the Mississippi River levee west of Garyville.
But Robottom warned residents about steep rate hikes expected for local flood insurance policies under federal legislation set to be implemented next year.
“It would be worse than the flood waters,” she said.
The ceremony included a slideshow of images of the initial damage and the storm response. Starting with still photographs of flooded areas, residents wading through waist-high water, and cars submerged to their hoods, the slideshow worked its way into snapshots of the recovery, with public officials flanked by President Barack Obama during a visit to LaPlace in September. When it was over, officials unveiled a plaque in front of the community center to commemorate Isaac’s impact.
Gerard Stolar, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s coordinating officer for the region, told the crowd that more than $67 million in state and federal disaster money was distributed to the parish. More than 12,500 residents registered for financial help in the wake of the storm.
“Although St. John the Baptist Parish was one of the hardest hit by this storm, there has been remarkable progress made,” Stolar said.
As others at the ceremony talked about carrying on in the wake of the storm, St. John Sheriff Mike Tregre mentioned one way in which 2013 is different from 2012.
“Have our lives changed?” Tregre asked. “Mine sure has. I watch the Weather Channel every day now.”