LIVINGSTON — Dozens of unhappy Livingston Parish homeowners had plenty of questions, a few tears and their share of demands for parish government officials Monday over recent letters warning them that their houses weren't properly assessed for damage after the 2016 flood — and that the failure could now lead to them having to raise their homes or even demolish them.
In 2019, Federal Emergency Management Agency audits found a series of shortfalls in the way the parish responded to the August 2016 flood, which inundated tens of thousands of home in the parish. And parish officials have since acknowledged they didn't do as many of the required damage assessments as they should have in an attempt to get people back in their homes quickly.
Two years after a flood ravaged the capital region, construction of new homes proceeds in much the same way.
A few weeks after letters went out to 1,221 households, the parish's homeland security director, grant coordinator, assessor and a handful of other officials were at the Parish Council chambers Monday to hear from residents and explain what to do next.
But they also got an earful as frustrations flared.
Some residents wanted written guarantees that, if they made those changes on their homes, they wouldn't face more demands after a future flood. Some wanted to know what the parish would do to help fill any gap in grant funding for a home elevation and make them whole, since it was the parish's error in the first place. Some asked why they should trust what the parish is saying now.
And several others, including one woman who brought her post-flood parish building permits, said they wanted to know how the parish let this happen in the first place.
About midway through the meeting, the standing-room only meeting erupted with shouts and raised hands when Brandi Janes, the parish homeland security director, was pressed on that question and she answered: "Again, you should have gotten this letter in 2016."
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A handful of residents interviewed before the meeting said they had all received parish building permits but didn't recall ever getting a damage assessment.
As Janes, who didn't work for Livingston in 2016, tried to explain what the parish would do next, some people called for Parish President Layton Ricks. His office is in a building next door in the chambers; he wasn't at the meeting.
"Where is our parish president?" one man shouted.
Karen Nolan, 60, a longtime teacher who lives in the Denham Springs area, said that, if she did what the parish had done on her job, she would have been fired.
"Alright, I'm just telling you straight up. You can't play these kinds of games with people's lives," Nolan told the officials.
Amid the free-flowing discussion, Janes said repeatedly she understood.
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Among the barrage of questions, Janes and Sarah Allen, the grant coordinator, attempted to explain the process of getting on a waiting list for funding to elevate or pursue a buyout.
One of the primary missions parish officials have, they said, was to inform residents of their opportunities to appeal the findings on their homes. Janes said she was trying to get as many people off the list of flagged homes as possible.
Janes explained that, for instance, owners of two-story homes who appealed would likely see their damage assessment revised downward, knocking them off the flagged list.
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Janes acknowledged the parish can't force homeowners to pick one of the options to lessen flood risk to their homes. But if they didn't, she said, they would not be able to get new construction permits in the future — though those permits would not apply for occupancy, electrical work or backyard improvements like a pool.
She added that just signing up on the waiting list would show an intention to pursue one of those options and would allow the homeowners to avoid the permit consequences.
Assessor Jeff Taylor told residents not to rely on his property tax assessments for home value information in those appeals but to seek out information from their insurers.
The assessments are based on a mass valuation that doesn't take into account expensive interiors, for instance, he said. Other assessments for older residents might have their home values frozen -- and thus be lower than the actual value -- under an exemption in the law for retired residents.
The residents who received one of the letters last month have been determined to have "substantial damage" after the historic flood.
That means their houses had damage that was 50% or more of the home's value and that the house is also in a high-risk flood zone, sitting below the estimated height of a 100-year flood, known as the base flood elevation.
The 100-year flood is one that has a 1% chance of happening in any year, a benchmark for insurance purposes.
Responding to a question from a reporter, Janes added that she has been informed that the parish is expected to have satisfied one of its compliance requirements in the FEMA audits simply by sending out the letters to the 1,221 homeowners.
Even if no one who received a letter actually pursues a home elevation or buyout, the parish should still be able to purse the restoration of a lost flood insurance rate discount for thousands of flood insurance policyholders parish-wide, Janes said.
The parish lost the 5% discount as a consequence of one of the post-flood audits.
Homes with mortgages that are built below the base flood elevation must have flood insurance. A 100-year flood event has a 26% chance of occurring in the lifetime of a 30-year mortgage.