09/25/2012 08:02 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Temporary Housing Planned for Louisiana Parishes After Isaac

Plaquemines and St. John the Baptist Parishes are eligible for temporary homes after Hurricane Isaac hammered south Louisiana on Aug. 29, 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, Isaac's storm surge 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 last week "our mapping-department team drove from Braithwaite to White Ditch 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 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 8 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 said "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.

At a coastal protection meeting in Belle Chasse last week, Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser said he had asked President Barack Obama recently if unprotected levees -- particularly on the east bank -- could 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."

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 Sept. 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 as levees failed during Isaac. Fourteen of the plant's storage tanks, along with piping systems, were damaged 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 leaking tanks was being moved to other tanks.

The Louisiana Bucket Brigade on Sept. 13 said a company report filed with the U.S. Coast Guard's National Response Center indicated that Stolthaven released benzene, styrene, toluene, xylene and other chemicals into the floodwaters near Braithwaite during Isaac. The state's Dept. of Environmental Quality, however, called that NRC report a worst-case scenario.

Last Wednesday, DEQ 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.

In St. John the Baptist Parish, thousands of homes 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." That includes about 4,000 homes with less than $20,000 in damages, nearly 2,000 homes with between $20,000 and $40,000 in losses, and at least 32 with 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."

Last week, Robottom released a statement saying that predictions for Isaac, barely a category 1 hurricane, understated 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 said "depending on needs, we'll bring mobile units into the two parishes. We're looking for housing solutions, including available rental opportunities."

In St. Tammany Parish, homes 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 Sept. 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 sustained $15,000 or more in damages each according to preliminary FEMA data. 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."

Peralta added "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 for damage after Isaac, and.44 properties were in the process of being demolished by a city contractor, according to Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office last week. Another eleven properties, identified by Code Enforcement and neighbors as harmed by the storm, 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.

On the positive side, Louisiana insurance commissioner Jim 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, 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 was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Sept. 24, 2012 edition.