[StBernard] Bought-out lots in La. face uncertain future
westley at da-parish.com
Tue Sep 18 22:02:34 EDT 2007
Bought-out lots in La. face uncertain future
By Brad Heath, USA TODAY
MERAUX, La. - David Toups' travel trailer is a last outpost of sorts. It's
planted at the end of a narrow street and surrounded by deserted houses and
empty lots choked with weeds and waist-high grass, the decaying remains of a
neighborhood that disappeared after Hurricane Katrina submerged it.
Most of the people who lived here before the storm are taking a government
buyout. And as soon as his check arrives, Toups and his trailer will
"I don't think there'll be anybody left out here," he says. "Maybe they'll
turn it back into a cow pasture."
Whether propelled by fear, frustration or simple economics, thousands of
homeowners are deserting some of the Gulf Coast neighborhoods that suffered
the worst flooding when Hurricane Katrina washed over them two years ago.
Across Louisiana, as many as 19,000 have said they will take the state's
offer of a buyout rather than rebuild what the storm destroyed.
What happens to those places next is anyone's guess.
"No idea," says David Peralta, the chief administrative officer here in St.
Bernard Parish. He has pitched the idea of public parks and partnering with
private developers, but "at this point it's going to be extremely difficult
for us to do anything."
The buyouts pose a challenge for a handful of communities in the Gulf Coast
that will need to figure out what to do with hundreds of storm-damaged homes
and empty lots. But no place will see the impact as sharply as in St.
Bernard Parish, a sliver of land outside New Orleans that suffered some of
the storm's worst flooding. Across the parish, nearly 40% of homeowners who
applied for rebuilding aid have said they plan to take a buyout, and in
pockets that suffered the worst damage, the percentage is far higher.
In the area around Toups' trailer, state records show 60 homeowners have
already told the state they'll take the buyout, being offered as part of
Louisiana's $11 billion Road Home rebuilding program. That end of Bartolo
Street dead-ends at a spot where Katrina overwhelmed a levee separating St.
Bernard from marshland, flattening houses and covering the area with more
than 15 feet of water.
Still, Toups says his decision not to rebuild wasn't a question of safety -
he bought a damaged house in a nearby subdivision and is nearly done
repairing it, a move that will cost him less than rebuilding his house on
"It was an opportunity to upgrade my standard of living," he says.
Peralta and other officials say some of their biggest challenges are
deciding what to do with the neighborhoods Toups and thousands of others are
leaving behind. By the time the buyout is complete, St. Bernard will need to
find a way to deal with 6,100 properties, most of which suffered extensive
Peralta says he wants to turn some of the land into public parks. Some could
be sold to adjacent homeowners. And the parish could sell some to private
developers who could bring new homes or businesses into a parish that by
summer had regained only about a third of its pre-storm population.
"There is a potential here to drastically improve our community," he says.
The challenge, he said, is that the parish doesn't have the money to pay for
long-term redevelopment. "We wouldn't have had the resources to do this
before the storm," Peralta says. "We certainly don't have them now."
Louisiana Recovery Authority Executive Director Andy Kopplin says the state
will find ways to help communities pay for redevelopment.
More pressing has been keeping thousands of bought-out houses from falling
into ruin. The properties will be turned over to St. Bernard and other local
governments; until then, the state is paying to mow the grass. (An agency
created by the state to do that has faced sharp criticism from neighbors
alleging the houses have not been maintained.)
Mississippi doesn't face that obstacle because that state's grant program
never buys damaged property, says Donna Sanford, head of recovery for the
state's Development Authority. Instead, it's up to homeowners to rebuild or
Louisiana Recovery Authority Housing Chairman Walter Leger says that if the
government didn't buy the land, some homeowners might simply abandon it,
creating an even bigger roadblock for rebuilding.
At the opposite end of Bartolo Street from Toups' trailer, Mark Hammond
started repairing the house he inherited from his mother almost as soon as
it was dry.
He's nearly done, but even on an end of the street where more people are
coming back, many have opted to take the buyout and move away.
"When I see them tearing down a house, that's when it sinks in that they're
not coming back," Hammond says, pointing from his front yard at empty lots
and concrete slabs. "I believe if this happens again, no one's going to come
back again. But this is home. Where else am I supposed to go?"
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