ST. AMANT — John and Sharon Pugh's two adult sons and their cousins stacked sandbags and put five pumps around their one-story house last August. But they couldn't stop the water.
The sandbags gave way early one morning and it was all over. Thirty-nine inches of water rushed into the Pughs' home.
"Rarely have I ever been involved in a setting where I felt like I couldn't control it, and we couldn't control it that night," Jarrett Pugh, 35, one of the couple's sons, said in a recent interview.
Four months later, John and Sharon Pugh are looking to stop any repeat of their battle with the elements.
Like 1,572 other Ascension Parish home or business owners, the Pughs have been told their house was "substantially damaged." While some property owners are appealing this finding, they accepted it, deciding to raise their home 5.5 feet off the ground while living in a trailer in their driveway along Peter Bourgeois Road in St. Amant.
When the state launched the Shelter at Home program just weeks after catastrophic flooding s…
State homeland security officials estimated earlier this month that as many as 8,400 homes and businesses statewide could end up being deemed to have substantial damage from the August flood, a finding that means the damage is worth 50 percent or more of the value of the building.
Under local and federal rules, owners of homes with substantial damage that are also in the 100-year flood plain and below the base flood elevation have three options: move, demolish and rebuild, or elevate.
Residents in the Pughs' part of St. Amant are the fringes of Ascension's flood protection system. Sandbagging is something of a necessary community rite during hurricanes and floods. Their flooded home fit all three factors that require elevation, demolition or removal: inside the 100-year floodplain, low elevation and 70.2 percent damage.
On her first day in office, Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome told the Baton Rouge busine…
The 100-year floodplain is the area estimated to inundate during a 100-year flood, which, despite the name, has a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year. The August flood has been estimated to be a 100- to 500-year flood by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Though John Pugh said he was open to moving, Sharon said she could not leave the house her dad built for them in 1982 and the land passed down to her.
"This is my land from my mother, and my sister's land," Sharon Pugh said. "My grandfather and grandmother had 30 acres, and they left it to their nine kids."
Sharon Pugh, 67, said some of her neighbors and friends are fighting substantial damage findings that came by mail recently because they had already started work on their homes.
But by the time she and her husband got a substantial damage letter from the parish in late November, they had already settled on the way forward.
The Pughs did briefly consider demolition and rebuilding higher, but could not find a builder of a traditional pier-and-beam house. They also considered a modular home on their property but would have had to pay extra to raise it high enough and were concerned about future hurricanes, Sharon Pugh said.
"We made the decision that we wanted to lift because we're old. We're tired of sandbagging," she said.
Earlier this month, their 1,200 square-foot home had already been excised from its old concrete slab, shed of its Old Chicago brick exterior and raised up while impaled with steel I-beam skewers resting on piers of stacked wood.
In unincorporated Ascension, elevation means going up 1 foot above the base flood elevation. John Pugh, who is disabled and 72, figures his house will be more than 2 feet above the August flood height and nearly the same above the base flood elevation once the work is done.
The base flood elevation is the height of water during a 100-year flood in a given location.
The Pughs said they are using their flood insurance proceeds for a $58,000 elevation job and hoping to use future elevation funds from the National Flood Insurance Program and leftover insurance dollars to pay for the house rehabilitation.
Though Federal Emergency Management Agency contractors often worked with parish and municipal inspectors to collect damage data after the August flood, the agency leaves the final decision and subsequent appeals of "substantial damage" to local governments.
Also, some parishes, like Ascension and East Baton Rouge, did not look at flooded structures outside the 100-year floodplain because the elevation and demolition rules don't apply no matter the damage.
But so far with 1,573 flooded structures, Ascension remains far and away the local leader on structures with substantial damage.
Nearly a quarter of the 6,700 to 6,800 homes, businesses and other structures flooded in unincorporated Ascension, Gonzales and Sorrento have been determined to be substantially damaged, municipal and parish officials said.
In the city-parish of East Baton Rouge, contractors working for FEMA had collected data from the field suggesting 6,000 of the 48,000 flooded structures had substantial damage, almost 13 percent of the total, city parish officials said.
But by late December, the city-parish had sent out 190 substantial damage letters — 0.4 percent of all flooded structures in the city-parish.
Another 80 or so home and business owners combined in Baker, Central and Zachary out of almost 6,600 flooded properties have been notified of substantial damage after the communities' internal review of FEMA field data. Central confirmed 39 of those properties as having substantial damage by late December, but still had another 411 properties to review that FEMA initially flagged. City government has internally overturned another 347 findings.
As of mid-December, Denham Springs officials had found 3,114 flood homes, businesses and other structures and 676 — or about 22 percent — had received substantial damage letters. Livingston Parish is taking a more determined approach to reviewing flooded structures and had sent out around 200 letters by early December.
Appeals could alter these totals as property owners submit contractor estimates and home appraisals to challenge damage estimates.
Steve Bateman, 72 and semi-retired, said he was three months into the repair of his flooded house off Stringer Bridge Road in St. Amant when he got a letter from Ascension Parish government. The November letter said he had 55.1 percent damage and, therefore, would have to move, elevate or demolish.
Bateman, who got 44 inches of water in his 40-year-old brick slab house that had never flooded before, is planning an appeal. He said he is doing all but the toughest, most time-consuming work himself — he built the house himself as a younger man — and figures the whole job won’t cost more than $50,000 to $60,000, which is less than half the value of his home.
He noted the letter didn’t break down how the parish and FEMA calculated the damage percentage, but he has been saving his receipts for the appeal. Though he has resisted the idea of seeking out a contractor just for an estimate on the repair job he is already doing, he has come around to the idea recently.
Bateman’s home was not insured. Elevation would be expensive, with Bateman estimating it could cost more than $100,000.
“It’s not worth doing that, but it’s worth fixing and me continuing to live in it. At 72, how many more years do I have?” he asked.
Bateman’s letter warned him that if he is not in compliance with parish flood rules, he won’t be eligible for flood insurance in the future. That’s a bet he’s willing to take if his appeal fails.
“I went through the parish 40 years without (flood insurance). I guess I can go through rest of my life without it,” he said. “You know, what are my choices?”
Jerome Fournier, Ascension's planning director, said property owners aren't always trying to get substantially damaged homes reduced below the 50 percent threshold. Some are seeking just the opposite.
But early data from the parish show the vast majority of appeals that were approved so far did involve lowering damage percentages to get below the 50 percent substantial damage threshold.
In Ascension, 129 appeals were filed by mid-December and decisions had been made on 110 of them, parish statistics show.
Of that number, 100 determinations were overturned. Of them, 82 had been found initially to have substantial damage but were lowered below the substantial damage threshold on appeal. The remaining 18 were shifted from initially not having substantial damage to being deemed substantially damaged, parish statistics show.
In East Baton Rouge, former Building Official Justin Dupuy said in October that the city-parish was double-checking every property with between 40 percent and 60 percent damage from FEMA and exploring "every possibility," including bringing in additional information, before substantial damage letters went out. Dupuy said officials were focusing then on those who came in for permits.
Earlier this month, Shannon Dupont, city-parish floodplain manager, said owners of some of the 6,000 structures that previously had been flagged by FEMA contractors filed an appeal. But he could not say how many.
Unlike the Pughs, others with substantial damage have not made a decision about how to proceed. Money is often the delay.
Sorrento Mayor Mike Lambert takes some pride in the way things used to be constructed when his mother and father’s house was built on Airline Highway in 1962. His old house — now gutted — is solid, the mayor said during a recent tour, pointing to the thick two-by-fours, oak floors and a cypress ceiling.
In August, the split-level, two-story slab house got between 3 an 4 feet of water. Even after an appeal to the small town government that he leads, Lambert had 57 percent damage, enough to remain in the substantial damage category with all its requirements.
While Lambert lives in a FEMA manufactured housing unit next-door, he is fighting with his insurance company for settlement dollars and is hung up on which way to go, he said.
Looking at how much money he can likely spend, Lambert is leaning toward demolition. He said he got an estimate of $155,000 to raise his 3,800-square-foot house the required 6 feet.
"It looks like the cost of raising it might be prohibitive to me," he said.
Part of the problem with his insurer, he said, is getting credit for the older, more expensive construction style, as well as slab damage he said the slow-rising flood water caused.
Lambert said the contrast has been notable between what National Flood Insurance Program officials have told him in meetings with other elected public officials and what his insurer has told him as an individual policy holder.
"Now you talk to NFIP people and they say, 'No, we're going to make you whole on your damages, on your actual damages,' but you talk to Allstate, it's a whole different story," Lambert said. "Like they don't want ... to give you the actual value and take into consideration the age and construction of older houses."
He said his insurer has told him the company would make his home "sustainable" and offered what he believes is less than half the cost of repair. He rejected that offer and is waiting on another.
Meanwhile, Brandi Wells Bourgeois, 38, had no desire to appeal her 59 percent damage assessment and wants to elevate to avoid dealing with a future flood.
Bourgeois' house in St. Amant, which she bought in April, got 16 inches of water even though it was raised more than 3 feet.
She said she needs nearly a foot more to get above the base flood elevation, but fights with her mortgage company to release her insurance settlement and getting access to federal elevation funds have led to delays.
Wells, a married mother of three who is living out of a FEMA trailer and backyard shop, believes she has found a way for the money to start flowing and work to begin, possibly in January.
"It’s a nightmare," she said. "We just want to be in our house."