Word use hindering storm recovery

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 20, 2013

By Richard Meek
Contributing Writer

LAPLACE – Hurricane Isaac and the subsequent recovery process has created a vernacular of its own with perhaps the most perplexing of terms being “substantial damage.”
Not only is the definition confusing but also the process engaged to make such a determination as St. John the Baptist Parish Council members learned during a recent meeting.  
In response to a question from Councilman Larry Snyder, Angelic Sutherland, parish director of planning and zoning, said a house is considered substantially damaged when it has sustained damage estimated to be at 50 percent or more of its prestorm value. But Sutherland also said two different evaluation methods have been employed to make that determination.
Initially, in the days and weeks after Isaac’s waters receded, the parish allowed residents to bring in contractors estimates of repairs, and that number was measured against the assessed value of the house to determine the percentage of damage. If residents disagreed with the evaluation, they were allowed to obtain a modified assessment.
“The majority of the people did not want to be substantially damaged, and they were contesting the assessor’s information,” Sutherland said.
However, at one point, Sutherland said, FEMA “came in and established a software system on our computers to input the numbers from substantial damage assessments.”
She said FEMA used values or valuations on the property as determined by the agency. By using a different process, the result has created confusion among residents, especially in subdivisions where one home may be considered substantially damaged while a neighbor’s is not, even those both structures took on the same amount of water.
“I don’t understand it,” Snyder said.
“One property may not have used the same method as the property next door,” Sutherland explained.
Once a house is considered substantially damaged, the property owner is eligible for up to $31,000 to elevate the structure, which was Snyder’s concern since owners whose property is not substantially damaged are not eligible for the funding.
“The concern from (some) residents is they wanted to be found substantially damaged so they could tap into those extra funds,” Council Chairwoman Jaclyn Hotard said. “Some of the homes are smaller, and the cost of elevation isn’t as costly. It would make some financial sense to elevate and reduce the risk of being flooded again.
“They don’t know when or if a hurricane protection levee is coming, so they want to be found substantially damaged.”
But Sutherland and Parish President Natalie Robottom warned council members that the added funding is not likely to cover the cost of elevation.
In fact, Robottom said based on prior history, structure elevation costs could run as high as $100,000.
“Initially, people wanted to get back into their homes,” Robottom said “They knew the cost of elevating and (the $31,000) was insufficient. Many people tried to work within the system.”
Robottom did say that new legislation could lead to higher insurance rates if residents choose to rebuild or repair existing homes at an old elevation height.
“You used to be allowed to go back to the elevation when the house was built,” she said. “That’s costing (FEMA).”
Robottom and Sutherland reiterated that all residents still have the right to appeal the decision of whether a house is substantially damaged.
“If they are disputing (an assessment), saying the damage is more than what we have on record, they would have to bring in their contractor’s estimate,” Sutherland said.
Robottom said levee protection remains the parish’s concerns and added she is exploring various options to secure funding for the project, including working with local congressmen.