Floodwaters in South falling, but misery remains

Associated Press
Two years after Hurricane Isaac, St. John still rebuilding
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Tania Dall / Eyewitness News
Email: tdall@wwltv.com | Twitter: @taniadall

ST. JOHN, La. -- Thursday marked the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Isaac’s landfall in southeast Louisiana.

One of the hardest hit areas during the storm was St. John the Baptist Parish, where thousands of people were evacuated from rising flood waters.

The welcome sign inside the lobby of Lake Pontchartrain Elementary serves as a reminder. It reads: August 27th, 2012. Hurricane Isaac has arrived. Be safe!

The students and staff still haven't returned to their campus two years after the storm.

"I think a lot of the parents and students are disappointed, but I feel very strongly they're on the right track now,” St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom said of the two schools that remain shuttered in the Parish.

There's a similar and eerie abandoned feeling inside East St. John High School for anyone who walk its hallways. The building was also flooded by Isaac's 8.4 foot storm surge that pushed its way into the parish, flooding homes, businesses and schools.

A report from the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness shows 4,000 people had to be rescued.

Last week a mitigation contract was finally approved for the high school after the School Board's stalemate in awarding construction contracts to fix both schools.

“Designated items for salvage, disposal. We're going to have a company come through clean everything,” said Courtland Foley of Lincoln Builders, pointing out some of the remediation work that has already started at ESJHS.

Next Tuesday demolition begins kick starting the construction project.

"They're building a levee around the perimeter of the [high] school, a pump station and redoing the drainage that will start in mid-to-late September,” said Cindy Janecke with All South Consulting Engineers.

Lake Pontchartrain Elementary School was hit hardest during Isaac. Now design work is underway to completely replace the facility on Hwy. 51.

“Even though FEMA did not declare the building substantially damaged, the school board felt that it was in their best interest to demolish that building and instead of putting a levee around it, elevate the building,” said Janecke of the elementary school.

Reopening the parish's two damaged schools is one of many priorities. The parish government is fighting for approximately $700 million to build a levee system to better protect St. John the Baptist Parish and the I-10 evacuation route.

As you may remember, much of the interstate in LaPlace was under water and impassable during the storm, staying flooded days later.

The proposed levee system would run from the Bonnet Carre Spillway to Hope Canal to the Mississippi River. It would also incorporate both St. James and St. Charles parishes.

“It is about 17 miles. The majority of it [the levee] is in St. John the Baptist Parish. There is a small portion in St. Charles which we have to connect to St. Charles levee. There has to be some connectivity,” Robottom said.

There were many lessons learned from Isaac. According to Robottom, staff are better trained in emergency preparedness. Communication with residents is more streamlined.

With more than 7,000 homes flooded during Isaac, Robottom said rebuilding efforts continue.

“We feel we're about 95 percent back to where we need to be, but what we understand is there may be people in their homes, they haven't completed all the construction,” Robottom said.

The parish says it has secured $32 million in Community Development Block Grant funds for elevation and construction work. Some of the money is still available to homeowners.

“All of these programs are being rolled out. We're in the process of securing funds to assist us with both eligibility and intake that entire process,” Robottom said. “We know from what happened in New Orleans, we're going to have some difficulty with title or clear title succession. So we're bringing on legal assistance to help the families that may have to work through that.”

It's work that continues parish-wide 24 months after Isaac stuck around for a little too long. The storm sparked historic flooding in communities that hadn't been hit this hard in decades.

The school board secured $39 million in FEMA funds to help rebuild both schools in the parish. St. John will have to find an additional $25 million in borrowed money, approved by voters in a bond referendum.

ESJH is expected to reopen for the 2015-2016 school year. Construction work on Lake Pontchartrain Elementary is expected to start sometime next summer and the school is slated to reopen for the 2017-18 school year.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Floodwaters from the Mississippi River are slowly falling, but for people from Tennessee to Louisiana, the misery it left behind is only beginning as they face gutting their ruined houses soaked in polluted water.

The bloated river has crested through the South and farmers with any hope of salvaging some of the growing season will have to scrub their fields of sandy sludge. And shipping is likely to be restricted for weeks because of pressure on levees. Also, a close watch will be kept well into the summer on strained levees, bridges and other structures.

Tuesday was the second day Memphis resident Wesley Roberts has been allowed back to his rented mobile home to retrieve possessions since it flooded to its 10-foot ceiling. It now sits on dry land with a red sticker on the glass sliding door indicating it's no longer inhabitable.

"I've never lost everything before," said the 59-year-old retiree. "It's new to me."

Roberts came back from a trip to Texas on May 1 to find the home near a tributary on the north side of town already underwater. His is among 2,500 houses and businesses in Shelby County that sustained at least some damage.

"There wasn't nothing I could do," he said. "I didn't have no boat. I just had to sit up there on that hill and watch my house get more and more underwater."

Some of the worst flooding has been along tributaries, and not all of the smaller rivers in Louisiana have hit their peak. The Atchafalaya River took on water diverted from the swollen Mississippi to spare more populous cities downstream, and it's expected to rise several more feet this week in Cajun communities like Butte Larose. Residents there were ordered to leave by Tuesday.

"It's falling now, slowly but surely. But it ain't falling that fast for me to get home," said William Jefferson, who has had at least 6 feet of water in his Vicksburg, Miss., house for two weeks. "I don't know what to expect. I won't know what to expect until I open the doors. Nobody knows until they open the door, then all hell breaks loose."

Upstream in Tennessee, people have been returning home to find damaged appliances, water-soaked beds and ruined clothing. Residents in several states are fretting about where they'll get rebuilding money as government inspectors evaluate homes, with some leaving behind color-coded stickers to say whether dwellings can be salvaged at all. Officials haven't yet put an overall dollar figure on residential damage, but thousands of homes were flooded in Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Scrubbing walls and floors with bleach, south Memphis resident Billy Burke counted himself lucky that floodwaters from a tributary didn't rise higher than his basement. He expects to spend $3,000 to $4,000 to clean out the basement and replace his water heater.

"That water had a bad smell to it," Burke said of the murky, brown soup that also filled his backyard. "I had to get rid of the bacteria and the mold. I don't want no bacteria getting in there."

In parts of northwest Mississippi, the agonizing wait continues for water to recede. Many houses have been flooded to the attics for weeks, and officials say some will have to be gutted or torn down. Government inspections must take place before many homeowners can return, a process that could take a week.

State officials say 1,664 primary residences have been evacuated, but it's not clear how many of those are flooded. Many victims have already applied for federal aid, but some say that process is moving slower than the water's retreat.

Howard Scott, a 47-year-old contractor from Tunica County, has said officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency told him he needed to apply — and be turned down — for a Small Business Administration loan before he can get FEMA aid.

"They're telling us to apply for loans they know we won't get," Scott said.

Cleanup is slowed in some of Mississippi's riverside neighborhoods because authorities don't want heavy equipment on roads that cross the saturated levees. Infrastructure problems up and down the river also include the closure of a flood-damaged rail bridge in Louisiana and treacherous navigation conditions that force barges to go slowly.

A stretch of the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge was reopened to southbound vessels several days after three barges sank amid high water and fast currents. Traffic is being restricted in both directions, and at least 27 vessels were waiting Tuesday to move south.

In northern Louisiana, officials that oversee hundreds of miles of levees in four parishes have been laying sandbags since March to fight spots called sand boils where water seeps to the surface. Although the Mississippi crested there last week, the president of the state's 5th levee district figures the fight won't end until early July.

"Every day I've got new ones popping up all over the place," he said of the sand boils. "I don't see any relief for us for at least a month. It's been pretty doggone grueling."

Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh underscored the need to keep a close eye on the levees: "We're putting as much pressure on the system as it is designed to withstand."

In Louisiana alone, agriculture officials estimate that over 282,000 acres of cropland could be flooded, causing $211.5 million dollars in losses.

About a sixth of farmer Ted Schneider's 2,800 acres in northeastern Louisiana was inundated.

"Today that crop is under 20 feet of water," Schneider said Tuesday.

Back inside Roberts' Memphis mobile home, he found the floor coated with grime and mud. His refrigerator lay door-down in his kitchen. A heavy television from his bedroom had floated into the living room. His bed, most of his clothes and a new sofa and recliner are now trash.

"I don't even have a jacket," Roberts said, standing in the sun and 80-degree heat. "I don't know what I'm going to do when it does get cold."

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Mohr reported from Jackson, Miss. Also contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Randall Dickerson in Nashville, Tenn.; and Mary Foster and Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans.

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