Local officials focus on storm damage, recouping federal dollars
New Orleans — Hurricane season 2012 might be over, but its effects linger, thanks to Hurricane Isaac, the Category 1 storm that surprised many when it left New Orleans unscathed but inundated parts of Plaquemines Parish, crippled St. John for weeks and created a mess in parts of St. Tammany and Jefferson parishes.
The season surpassed forecasters’ expectations by producing 19 named storms with 10 of them becoming hurricanes between July 1 and the end of the season today. Only one, Hurricane Michael, developed into a major hurricane, but it stayed out at sea.
Regardless of the statistics, Isaac, with its stunning storm surge, was a bellwether storm and reminder that a low category doesn’t necessarily mean a small weather event.
Plaquemines Parish was dealt one of Isaac’s harshest blows when the storm made landfall in late August and drowned the community of Braithwaite.
Parish President Billy Nungesser said that one of the biggest issues still facing his territory three months later is Federal Emergency Management Agency approval to remove debris and repair levees that were overwhelmed in the Braithwaite area.
The levees and canals are buried in massive amounts of dead marsh grass and other debris, Nungesser said, which has to be removed before they can begin repairing the holes and other breaches in the 18-mile long levee. The debris clogs drains and puts the area at danger of flooding from even a relatively mild winter storm, he said. It also creates a fire hazard.
Nungesser said FEMA officials told him that there are policies in Washington that need to change before he can get on-the-ground approval.
“It should have been approved right away,” he said.
Nungesser said residents who flooded are awaiting approval for buyout and elevation grants. People are working on repairing homes but have not yet returned to the small town of Braithwaite.
Nungesser said the parish will contribute $1 million to the elevation of a 2.5-mile stretch of La. 23, which is scheduled to be completed by the beginning of next hurricane season. The parish is also working to raise levees and secure more funding for that effort.
Nungesser said he hopes that there may be legislative reforms following Hurricane Sandy that may change local disaster response in ways he said can save time and money.
Another area hit hard — and unexpectedly — during Isaac was St. John the Baptist Parish. Between 5,000 and 6,000 of the parish’s estimated 17,000 homes took water during the storm when surge from Lake Pontchartrain washed through, closing parts of Interstate 10.
Parish President Natalie Robottom described the storm as an “anomaly.” She said that while Airline Highway and other commercial areas are back in operation and all appears well, much work remains to be done.
“People think it’s all back to normal,” she said. “It’s not.”
About 12,000 people registered with FEMA and received about $23 million for housing, but many, Robottom said, are trying to work through funding issues to repair their homes.
John Vicari is one of those people.
Isaac left about 3 feet of water in his Magnolia Street home when the water came in. The former laboratory manager had to quit his job to focus on doing repairs himself after his insurance company gave him a check for about $30,000. He said he needs about $65,000 to make the complete repairs.
“We’re at a standstill,” he said Thursday.
He moved back into his home about a month ago but still lacks most modern necessities. He has no kitchen, only a borrowed refrigerator. Additionally, there’s still much furniture to replace. In the meantime, he, his wife and 6-year-old daughter share one bed.
Down the street, though, there is some progress.
David Royce has been back in his home about two months. On Thursday, he was done with about 95 percent of the work.
One concern both share is that many homes remain empty. Some people aren’t sure they want to come back, they said, since the parish still lacks protection from Lake Pontchartrain. That’s something Robottom said has needed to be addressed for a long time but is more urgent these days.
“It’s very obvious now how vulnerable St. John is, and not just for our residents, but for the region,” she said.
In the Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria areas of Jefferson Parish, Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner said some residents are recovering better than others during these post-Isaac days, much like their counterparts in St. John.
While some people are eligible for FEMA funds, others aren’t. Because of that, Kerner said, the town is working to raise money for drywall and other supplies to continue to repair flooded homes. After flooding during hurricanes Rita, Ike and Isaac and tropical storms Debbie and Lee, the challenge is how much people can take.
“The more it happens the harder it is to go through — it’s taking a toll on a lot of people,” he said.
Kerner said Jefferson Parish is considering using at least part of a $14.5 million hazard and mitigation grant to raise houses outside the federal levee protection system. But being outside the system is an ongoing source of frustration for Kerner and his constituents.
At a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers meeting a few weeks ago, Kerner said he was told flood walls and a large pumping station constructed after Hurricane Katrina resulted in an additional 5 inches of flooding in Lafitte.
For Kerner, who was out during Isaac building a temporary levee of sandbags and rock barriers, 5 inches would have made a big difference. “We only lost by an inch or two,” he said.
Officials in St. Tammany Parish, where flooding from Isaac affected areas of south Slidell, Madisonville and the Mandeville lakefront, said cleanup of public property has been accomplished. Homeowners and businesses that were damaged in the storm continue the process of making repairs, Parish President Pat Brister and Slidell Mayor Freddy Drennan said.
But another time-consuming task is still largely ahead: Documenting the governments’ costs to recoup money from FEMA.
Drennan said that even though Isaac was not close to a Katrina-like event, water still came close to coming over railroad tracks that run along Front Street and act somewhat as a levee. Had that happened, he said, flooding would have been widespread.
As it was, Slidell’s Olde Towne section flooded during Isaac — as it did during Katrina. Drennan said that Olde Towne flooded during Isaac because water went around the pumping station at Bayou Patassat, which drains the area. He speculated that a levee built along U.S. 11, which was protected with Hesco baskets during Isaac, might have meant that water found another weak spot — at the pumping station. He hopes to get mitigation money to build a levee to protect that station in future storms.
Meanwhile, St. Tammany Parish officials continue going through the process of tallying up the costs of Isaac, Brister said.
St. Tammany sustained costs of $3.5 million as of Nov. 20, she said.
The Towers Building in Slidell, which houses parish offices, sustained some damage, and the storm destroyed a fishing pier that had been built using portions of the old Interstate 10 twin spans that were destroyed in Katrina.