LaPlace residents rebounding one year after Hurricane Ida — but still in harm’s way
New Orleans Advocate, The (LA)
About three weeks ago, it was finally Kimbra Williams-Webber's turn.
At long last, the camper was hauled off her front lawn, and she could once again look onto the street from her home on Derek Lane in LaPlace.
"I'm happy to see my grass is growing back," Williams-Webber said on a recent Wednesday. "It's the little things that make you happy."
The once-flooded neighborhoods of LaPlace are rebounding one year after Hurricane Ida's winds and waters nearly destroyed St. John the Baptist Parish. But despite the steady progress, residents are aware that their community is no less vulnerable than it was before.
The view from her front yard has changed, too. Her flooded-out car is still in the driveway, and so is her neighbor's next door. Only they, like many others on the street, have not yet returned.
"We're waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers to start our project to protect us with this levee system," said Williams-Webber, who lives in the Palmetto Lakes subdivision. "I'm praying that nothing happens because the water tables here are kind of high."
Ida delivered a punishing combination of Category 4 winds, a massive storm surge and heavy rain. The downpour was particularly devastating for residents of low-lying areas, like Williams-Webber. And it conjured memories from a decade ago when the area was flooded after Hurricane Isaac.
For decades, the roughly 40,000 residents of LaPlace have been considered for levee protection but never received funding until 2020, when Congress finally decided to move forward with the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain project. Army Corps of Engineers officials say the earthen levee will rise over the next four years, reaching its final height of between 8.5 and 15 feet above sea level by 2026.
Until then, every hurricane season is a gamble.
Height of the season
Heading into the most active phase of the year, residents are still reeling from last year's devastation. In St. John Parish, nearly 5,000 owner-occupied homes and some 3,700 renters were affected by Ida, according to the Louisiana Office of Community Development.
Data suggest that, on a per-capita basis, St. John was Louisiana's hardest-hit parish. More than three out of four homes in the parish had wind damage claims, records show – the highest rate of any parish. In addition, nearly 60% of the homeowners with flood-insurance policies filed flood claims.
"The devastation after the storm was incredible because not only did people flood, but we also had a lot of structural damage on properties," said Parish Councilman Robert Arcuri. "We still have a lot of residents that are fighting with their insurance company and some of them are just starting to rebuild."
The recovery has also been slowed by the state's homeowners insurance crisis, which was triggered by the four hurricanes that made landfall in the state since late 2020.
Eight companies have collapsed under financial strain and a growing number of them are pulling out of Louisiana. The failed insurers have left behind more than 26,000 unresolved claims for the state's industry bailout program to handle.
For those people, getting their final settlement may take even longer.
"That's a problem, but it's not a big problem," Arcuri said. "I see a lot of progress that's happening in our parish."
Schools back with fewer students
The imprint left by the storm is becoming clear in other ways.
St. John the Baptist's public schools recently returned to the classroom for the first time since the pandemic, with about 400 fewer students in attendance before Ida. Many of them have left for other cities in Louisiana, like Shreveport and Baton Rouge; officials say. Some have gone as far away as Dallas.
It's too soon to know what the final tally will show until the first count of the current school year is completed in October. School officials have some insight now because the district sent computers to students last year for virtual classes.
"Some of them haven't reported back yet where they have gone," said Rebecca Johnson, the district's interim superintendent. "Our numbers are smaller, but we're just getting to the point in the school year where we can see who the no-shows are, find them and (ask): 'where are you?'"
Johnson said there could be various reasons for the decline, but most point back to Ida.
"It's because of a lack of housing in the district and families just not moving back since the storm," Johnson said. "Many of our neighborhoods where apartments are, (they're) no longer available because they haven't been fixed."
The district's facilities suffered the same kind of damage as homeowners: shredded roofs and broken windows. But Johnson said most of the critical work was done in time for the Aug. 8 start date.
Only one school — Emily C. Watkins Elementary in LaPlace — was not finished in time, so its 420 students are attending a previously closed campus in Reserve. The repairs at Watkins will not be completed until February 2023.
School Board member Shawn Wallace said it's an exciting year for students returning to a classroom for the first time in nearly two years. But he's aware if another storm threatens this fall, it could upend that sense of normalcy.
"We're looking to start this school year off with – hopefully – no interruptions, now that the whole district can go back into a building setting," Wallace said. "(Now) you don't have to be sharing with other schools and modifying other buildings to maintain the day-to-day education."
An uneven recovery
The outlook is less optimistic in the far northwest corner of the Cambridge subdivision.
There, numerous buildings are still in a state of disrepair. Campers crowd the front yards. And Blue tarps are still draped over many roofs.
Inside a small duplex on Revere Drive, Michael Smith kept watch over a crew of construction workers that had finally come to complete repairs to his house. He'd first relied on another group hired by his contractor that did shoddy work they left unfinished, he said.
In the kitchen, the cabinets were mismatched and the sink was the wrong size. In the bedroom, the closet doors didn't fit. The bathroom sink was returned because it, too, was the wrong size.
Smith evacuated to Dallas two days before Ida struck and returned weeks later. Now, nearly a year after the storm, he's still living in a camper.
"They tried to screw me," Smith said. "Two months ago, all of this should have been done. If I'm going to pay for them to do my house, I want it done right."
Outside a nearby house, Winona Barnette was sitting on the steps of another trailer.
She said a tree fell on top of her family's house that required a crane to remove it. Her family stayed behind during Ida and had to be rescued from floodwaters by the National Guard.
"We were all in the attic when the water was coming in," she said. "It was very scary."
There's still a dent in the peak of the roof, a reminder of her family's ongoing battle with their insurer. She said the company has only offered $4,000 for roof repairs.
"We don't have a mortgage; the house is paid in full," Barnette said. "I think that's why the insurance (company) is giving us more of an issue. It's just us."
Looking down the street toward her neighbors on Williamsburg Drive, Barnette couldn't help but be a little bit envious.
"This block is the worse one because of all the trailers," she said. "We look like a trailer park instead of a subdivision."