St. John The Baptist Parish News Release

Hurricane Isaac Recovery is a Team Effort in St. John Parish

Hurricane Isaac Recovery is a Team Effort in St. John Parish

Littice Bacon-Blood
August 29, 2013

A year after Hurricane Isaac brought strong winds and rushing waters that submerged St. John the Baptist Parish streets and flooded more than 7,000 homes, residents gathered Thursday at the St. John Community Center for a ceremony to reflect on Isaac's impact.

Lynette Charles cried as she recalled Isaac's damage to her Concordia Street home in LaPlace. Charles, 64, said, 4 feet of Lake Pontchartrain's water surged into the house where she had lived in for 14 years.

"That hurt me. I lost everything I ever worked for,'' said Charles, who finally returned home in February.

But she smiled at the unity the storm left in its wake for her Cambridge subdivision neighbors. "Since this happened, the whole neighborhood, we talk to each other now, checking on each other," said Charles. "Before it wasn't like that. He was a blessing in a way, and he was terrible."

Isaac's surge reached 8 to 10 feet in some areas, mainly in LaPlace and Reserve. More than 6,000, people were evacuated from dozens of neighborhoods, and hundreds more were stranded by the quickly rising water and had to be rescued. However, there were no storm-related deaths. 

The parish has recovered swiftly, with most damaged homes and businesses already restored. Gerard Stolar, FEMA's Region 6 coordinating officer who has helped St. John during the storm, called the progress "remarkable."  

He said St. John Parish has received more than $67 million in state and local aid. More than 12,500 residents registered with FEMA for assistance.

"This federal funding was really designed to get you back upon your feet so that you could take ownership of your recovery," Stolar said. "And that's exactly what you have done."  

Parish officials attribute the 90 percent recovery rate to state and local partnerships, residents helping each other and a slew of volunteers.

""St. John's recovery is a result of a team effort," Parish President Natalie Robottom told the audience. "St. John has had the support of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and other state agencies, the faith-based and non-profit community and a host of volunteers from the area, from the state and from around the country."

Still, the recovery continues, Robottom said. Some homes yet need rebuilding, as do two public schools. About 2,000 students were displaced when East St. John High School and Lake Pontchartrain Elementary flooded.  The school system has estimated repairs will cost $70 million.

"Today we pause to remember and acknowledge the devastation suffered one year ago, but we also take time to celebrate our recovery efforts thus far," Robottom said. "I say thus far, because we are not done."

In front of the community center, a granite plaque was unveiled to pay homage to the storm's effects on St. John, which sits outside the federal hurricane protection levee system. In addition, the parish doesn't have large drainage pumping stations like neighboring St. Charles and Jefferson parishes, but relies on gravity to drain water to the lake. The deluge of rain during several hours from the stalled storm took its toll.

St. John was designated a federal disaster area after Isaac, and President Barack Obama toured some of the badly damaged neighborhoods.

Isaac's floodwaters served to highlight St. John's vulnerability to storm surge and has sparked movement on a long-awaited hurricane protection levee. Although the project is still years away, the Army Corps of Engineers announced last week that it would support and seek funding for an 18-mile levee at an estimated cost of $881 million.

Robottom used the commemorative ceremony to urge residents to attend upcoming public hearings at which the levee protection for the parish will be discussed. She told residents that they must be vocal during the public hearing and throughout the 45-day comment period allocated by the corps to discuss the project and the tentative alignment.

"We need you to be here. We need you speaking out in support of the protection that we've been waiting for, for 40 years," Robottom said. "After that alignment is selected, we need to work on funding."

Robottom said officials need to push for an "expeditious" construction of the levee. "That is the only thing that will make all of us comfortable during hurricane season," she said. "We're susceptible to flooding, due to tidal and wind direction because we have no levee protection."

A second Hurricane Isaac remembrance ceremony was held at 7 p.m. at New Wine Christian Fellowship Church in LaPlace, which serves as the parish's emergency shelter of last resort.

The scene there on Thursday was much different than it was a year ago today. As a couple of hundred people laughed and talked while waiting for the ceremony to begin, the Rev. Neil Bernard, pastor of New Wine and chairman of the parish's long-term recovery group, recalled the chaos. "Last year at this time, there was such a sense of hopelessness," Bernard said.

The church became the staging area for the rescue and evacuation of thousands of residents overtaken by the suddenness of rapidly rising floodwaters. Many residents made their way to the church in the backs of military trucks and on buses with only the clothes on their backs.

Thursday's celebration at the church was important because it recognized how far the parish has come since last year, Bernard said. "The reality is that just after one year, 90 percent of the residents are back in their homes. That is nothing short of amazing. We can't help but give thanks for what God has done in this community."

Bernard said residents of all faiths and affiliations rallied to put St. John back together. It is that spirit of unity that is cause for celebration, he said. "It is so refreshing to see how hope has come out of a seemingly hopeless situation," he said. "After all is said and done, St. John will come back better and stronger."