NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - On the East bank of Plaquemines Parish, outside the wall that protects metro New Orleans, two devastating storms swamped Braithwaite Park. Hurricane Katrina flooded the neighborhood in 2005, and Hurricane Isaac flooded the same area in 2012.
"Everybody lost everything twice," Jill Baumy said.
Her family returned and rebuilt both times.
Many homes, though, remain vacant. Some are boarded up and some are exposed. What may be worse, there are hidden dangers in several backyards.
"If someone went and stepped in that area, it could be bad. They have weeds growing out of them to where some of them you wouldn't recognize there's even a pool beneath it," Baumy said.
From the air, her clear, blue pool glistens, but to left, to the right, across the street, and down the street, she is surrounded by dark, stagnant pools.
"I think the last time I counted it was six. Six pools," she said.
She said on the 400 block of Palm Drive, one street over, are two other blighted pools. All but one of the pools, she explained, has been stagnant for six-plus years. Worse than that, there’s another stagnant pool that’s been in an unsanitary and dangerous condition for 13.5 years. Baumy and other neighbors confirm the pools are attracting mosquitoes, rodents and even gators.
"It would go in the pool and then get back on the deck. It wasn't a really big alligator, but any kind of alligator in the neighborhood is bad to me," Baumy said.
At least one of the un-maintained pools is exposed. There’s no fence or barrier.
Baumy: "We haven’t had no success on any pools at this time.”
Shelley: “And you've reported the pools?”
Baumy: “Numerous times, yes.”
Shelley: “Who have you reported the pools to?”
Baumy: “Went through the process, I reported it to my councilman, he referred it to the administration. It went to the health department, and when I wasn't getting any action from the health department, I would call ‘em myself and ask them what's going on, and they would tell me their hands are tied - they can't do anything."
After seeing our reports exposing blighted pools in New Orleans, four of which were drained, filled with sand or covered, she turned to the FOX 8 Defenders for help.
“I’ve been through two administrations with the parish trying to get something done with the pool situation, and we never had any luck yet, so when I saw your story air, I thought, well maybe I’ll give that a try.”
In an email to a parish health department employee in August and her council member in October, Baumy mentioned “3 to 4-foot-high grass over the swimming pool.” She also said it “has not been maintained in over six years,” and there’s “no security around the pool - that leaves small children vulnerable to falling in.”
A public records request showed a health department inspector in 2014 found the pool was “not in violation…pool was covered by grating and wood.” But from the air, it appears boards are covering only parts of the pool, and there’s no fence.
The parish code on its website says, “in-ground swimming pools…are to be protected by a fence…at least 6 feet in height” and with a “self-latching closure mechanism." It also considers “any accumulation of stagnant water” a “nuisance.” Records show in 2009 that the parish ordered this pool be “drained or filled in with mud” or the parish would do it. In 2011, another letter stated please see that “the pool is drained immediately.”
But in 2014, an inspection noted "the pool was secured by a gate…the property was no longer in violation."
Fast forward to now. It's still stagnant.
And so are several other pools. Yet inspections over the years say "property owners were able to secure the property” - no violation. “Owners secured pool area…property is no longer in violation."
Shelley: "So even if they have a fence, if they have stagnant water, that’s still violating your code.”
Councilman John Barthelemy: “Exactly. They need to be filled in with dirt or sand if people aren't moving back, they have no intention of moving back, they need to be closed."
Barthelemy says the parish needs to be more aggressive and mandate the ordinance he says has been in place.
Shelley: "You're saying it's already in the code?"
Barthelemy: “[You] just gotta enforce it."
“This is a new day, a new administration, and we want to make sure we protect everyone in Plaquemines Parish and residents in Braithwaite. We will investigate, and we will determine which way we need to move,” said Plaquemines Parish President Kirk Lepine.
On the job for just about a month, Lepine couldn’t speak to specifics about the ordinance or parish enforcement.
“My health department has been depleted,” Lepine said. “The code enforcement is down to two for the whole parish, so we are trying to fix everything we possibly can.”
He did say that parish employees have been proactive in abating mosquitoes in areas where stagnant pools exist, and that moving forward, the parish’s new legal team would look into ways to become more stringent with owners. We also pointed out that records show Plaquemines Parish is the primary owner of a vacant property with a stagnant pool. Shelley: “So if the parish has adjudicated a property, does that mean the parish is responsible for keeping up that property?”
Lepine: “I’d check with my legal department to see what’s our responsibility.”
In the meantime, we’ve talked with some of the homeowners. Cheryl Tufaro, who’s already rebuilding one home in the area, told us her intention was to fix up the Palm Drive home and pool, but she said, “There’s so much uncertainty around levee protection and insurance rates.”
Jesse Shaffer, who helped rescue neighbors from their rooftops, could hardly talk about his former home.
“It’s not that we don’t want to go back, it’s just that it’s hard to go see,” he said. "When you got 12-foot levees and you got 18 feet of water, that still doesn’t work, you know?”
Shaffer said his pool is secure with brick walls and and iron gate, but there’s water in it.
“I probably do need - I’m gonna put that cover on it, like I told you, when I get back, for the mosquito problem. I was gonna make a metal cover to go over the top of it,” Shaffer said.
And Donald Durr with DLT Investments bought this home in a tax sale and says he installed a metal mesh in the pool.
“Our intention was to fix it up and place it back on the market, but due to a U.S. Treasury lien on the property, our hands are tied,” Durr said.
The lien is restricting him from securing clear title, mortgage and insurance.
“It takes months before action can be done,” he said.
She sympathizes with the emotional toll two storms have had on old neighbors and the uncertainty for the future, but for Jill Baumy and others who have returned, it’s been too long waiting for action.
Councilman Barthelemy plans to introduce legislation that would cut out some of the steps residents have to go through for a property inspection. And Parish President Lepine says we could see the Plaquemines Parish council bring the issue up for discussion at the next meeting, which is next Thursday.
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