BAYOU CORNE — After 2½ years stuck in sinkhole limbo, life is busy and headed toward change for Nick and Brenda Romero.
On a still, chilly morning in his Bayou Corne neighborhood, Nick Romero, 66, was in the garage attic gingerly lowering a trunk attached to a homemade pulley system to his grandson Chase Baldwin.
Once the scruffy, old-timey trunk was laid flat on the garage’s cold cement floor, Baldwin, 17, asked the question begging to be answered.
“Paw Paw, how old is it?” Baldwin asked.
“I don’t know. That’s Ganny’s,” Romero responded, giving Brenda’s grandmotherly nickname.
Whether cherished or forgotten, belongings the Romeros have gathered up over 24 years in their weekend camp-turned-home are being pulled out, boxed up and shipped northeast to Livingston Parish. Since late November, trailer load after trailer load has been towed away behind Nick Romero’s pickup.
A moving company was expected on Friday to help with some of the big furniture and appliances. Nick Romero said he is shooting to be completely out by Jan. 21.
The Romeros are among the second wave of families who have accepted property buyouts from Texas Brine Co. and its insurers to settle claims related to the nearby sinkhole.
The now 31-acre swampland hole emerged overnight in early August 2012, the result of a failed salt dome cavern operated by Texas Brine. Since then, the bucolic swampland community known for its fishing and close bonds has been forever changed as residents, under a persistent evacuation order, have left.
The Romeros’ closing is scheduled for Jan. 22, when they will get their property buyout check and also will have to turn over the keys to their house. Within the next several weeks, the last of those planning to leave are expected to have finally left Bayou Corne for good.
When the buyouts are finished, roughly a dozen families will remain in what was once a community of about 150 families, leaving an uncertain future for what will be a mostly empty place near the occasionally rumbling and decreasingly gassy sinkhole.
“This whole dang place just changed,” Nick Romero said.
The Romeros and others are plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit filed against Texas Brine. They reached a $48.1 million settlement in April. U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey has ordered that all property closings be scheduled by Thursday and take place “as soon as practicable.” Plaintiffs’ attorneys and Texas Brine officials said they want them finished by Jan. 30.
Separate damages claims over mental anguish are being resolved also, but attorneys said they are hopeful to have those checks out by January’s end, too.
Larry Centola, an attorney representing homeowners, and Texas Brine officials said they could not disclose how much has been paid out so far in property buyouts or how much the damages settlements would be worth.
Through Wednesday afternoon, sales records for 34 of the 38 closed buyouts from the class-action were filed with the Assumption Parish clerk of court. Combined, the documents reflect $8.07 million in sales, or an average of $237,260 per property owner.
Buyouts ranged widely — from about $40,500 to nearly $778,850. The buyout’s sweep included small lots with mobile homes as well large new homes on multiple lots, land records show.
Sonny Cranch, Texas Brine’s spokesman, provided a company statement saying Texas Brine plans to close on 36 of the 48 remaining properties by Jan. 22. The remaining 12 class plaintiffs will have a closing date set by Thursday, the statement says.
Each closing also ends $875 weekly evacuation assistance payments that Texas Brine has been making to residents since fall 2012 at a cost to the company of nearly $11.8 million, Cranch said.
Both through the class-action and earlier direct buyouts outside the court system, Texas Brine has bought out 104 property owners so far, according to figures provided by Cranch.
Martin “Marty” Triche, Assumption Parish Police Jury president, said he does not know what the future holds for the unoccupied houses and mobile homes.
“The question has been asked to Texas Brine by us and some other folks: After the buyout takes place, what are their intentions with the homes, with the properties they are purchasing?” Triche said.
Texas Brine is buying the properties through a separate corporation, Bayou Corne Holdings, land records show. Though Texas Brine hopes to turn the bought-out property into “green space,” the company says it will not decide until after settlements are finished.
In the meantime, the company is cutting off utilities to the houses it purchased, cleaning them up and removing appliances.
While a variety of litigation over the sinkhole remains against Texas Brine, Occidental Chemical Corp., insurers and others, Texas Brine settled this fall with parish government and the Sheriff’s Office for their sinkhole-related expenses.
The state has not settled with the company, said Laura Gerdes Colligan, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office.
Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, said the state has incurred about $16 million in sinkhole-related costs so far.
Texas Brine also is making progress in removing methane gas released during the formation of the sinkhole that has posed a continuous threat to residents and required a parish evacuation order to remain in place, officials said.
In the past year, the sinkhole also has been trending toward more stability.
The failed salt dome cavern that scientists think breached deep underground and started sucking in surrounding sediment, causing the sinkhole to form, has been completely filled with sediment.
The fill material, which has been described as having varying consistencies but, in some parts, like that of gelatin, will continue to compress inside the underground cavern. That will make room for more rock to fill the cavern, potentially leading to further surface instability but likely not at the levels once seen, scientists say.
In an Oct. 9 report, the state’s special expert commission on the sinkhole concluded that compaction could go on for “many years to come.”
Micro-earthquakes pointing to breaking rock or salt began to pick up Dec. 22 and have continued for weeks, halting work on the sinkhole and causing cracks in an abandoned sinkhole containment levee, parish officials said.
Uncertainty also remains about the broader stability of the salt dome’s western flank, from which the now damaged cavern had been mined and where surrounding caverns exist. The state panel ordered long-term monitoring and investigations into the stability of those caverns while mining is halted.
While the Romero family is just preparing to move out of their home in Bayou Corne, Pat and Jim Parks are getting ready to move into the new home they had built in Walker.
Pat and Jim Parks closed on their buyout Sept. 12, which Pat Parks says was “fair,” and construction on the new home they had built in the Spring Lake subdivision may be finished this week.
The couple has been living in a cramped recreation vehicle since shortly before the sinkhole evacuation was ordered on the evening of Aug. 3, 2012.
On a recent visit to the new home, big smiles and the excitement of new plans were evident as the couple showed off the spacious, 3,000-square-foot home getting contractors’ finishing touches.
Jim Parks, 80, will have an enclosed workshop for his woodworking and already knows where all his equipment will go.
Pat Parks, 70, marveled over her large closet that would take up a good section of the RV they’re still living in.
The couple, who had been planning a move to Branson, Missouri, said they got the last lot on a large lake frequented by ducks after the price came down.
While Pat Parks said she is happy where they will be, Jim Parks, an avid fisherman, said he would have stayed on the bayou if he could have, a place he had visited since he was a boy. But he’s happy to still be on the water.
He said he plans to plant cypress trees along the lake to remind him of his beloved Bayou Corne and has a small cypress sapling from the bayou itself in a pot waiting for the day. “This was meant to be. That’s all there is to it,” Jim Parks said.
Nick Romero is leaving Bayou Corne with great reluctance. He, along with a few others, were among the vocal and persistent questioners of Texas Brine’s response to the sinkhole and of the state’s oversight of the company.
Part of their fight, he and others have said, was for straight answers and to save their homes.
As time has passed and others have left, though, a harsh reality has set in: A community is not just a place, no matter how beautiful, but also the people who live there.
“That’s what makes a difference, losing all your friends and not being able to have that, you know,” Nick Romero said.
He said he and his wife are ready to move on with their family in Watson. While they rent in Denham Springs, they will build their future home. It’s going to be on the water, in Tranquility Lakes subdivision.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.