Expensive New Homes In Holly Beach Are Being Surrounded By FEMA Trailers. What’s Up With That?
The small coastal community of Holly Beach is situated along the Gulf Coast of Cameron Parish. The unincorporated parish covers almost 100 miles of the Gulf shoreline to the south, and constitutes the heel of this boot-shaped state. It’s bordered to the west by Texas, and to the north by Calcasieu Parish.
Before Hurricane Rita, Holly Beach was a quaint little beach community of 300. It consisted of vacation homes, beach-front cabins or camps, and a significant number of low-income homes, many filled with senior citizens on a fixed income.
There were a small number of thriving businesses, including three bars, numerous weekend rental cottages, two stores, a diner and a gas station.
In 2005, Hurricane Rita completely leveled the small coastal town, leaving nothing but a water tower in its wake.
A year after the devastation of Hurricane Rita, Holly Beach was slowly beginning to rebuild. Some residents were living in mobile homes set up on their property. But many former residents couldn’t afford to rebuild because of the stringent new building codes that raised required pier elevations to 10-14 feet above ground.
At that time, the New Orleans Picayune (NOLA.com) reported concerns that because of the strict building codes and the high insurance costs, many of the original residents wouldn’t be able to rebuild, and that the southern part of the parish would end up with temporary trailer-type housing indefinitely.
Then, in 2008, Hurricane Ike flooded the area and destroyed most of the new building efforts.
Any businesses that even considered rebuilding gave up and moved to higher ground. This left most of Holly Beach in a vacuum — a no-man’s land ripe for the picking. Lots were sold at record low prices. Many residents cancelled plans to rebuild, and Cameron Parish seemed to have all but forgotten about that once beautiful stretch of Louisiana coastline.
Building Codes, Permits, Inspections And Red Tape
Cameron Parish is the only unincorporated parish in Louisiana, so the only governmental body in the parish is the Police Jury. Before you start any type of construction; move a manufactured or modular home, recreation vehicle or storage building onto your property; or remodel; you must apply for a Development Permit from the Cameron Parish Planning and Development Office.
The Cameron Parish website states that the office follows the National Electrical Code, Louisiana State Plumbing Code, International Residential Code, International Building Code (for commercial work), International Mechanical Code and International Fuel Gas Code. The site also asserts that the office will require all building, mechanical, gas, electrical and plumbing work to comply with these codes.
According to Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 42 (regular session, 2006) the post-Rita building codes require a total of four continuous lots if one is to install a septic system — or a total of 5,000 square feet. Only one habitable structure may be placed on those four lots, be it a house or a motor home. These regulations are in effect until such time as Cameron Parish installs a community sewage system, which is unlikely due to the small population.
All building permits are obtained at the Cameron Parish Police Jury Office. There are numerous requirements regarding such matters as square footage, number of circuits in the panel box, building plans, number of plumbing fixtures, elevation surveys, and site plans for all development.
When asked about the inspection process, a staff member at the Police Jury stated, “We send out an electrical inspector, but we don’t really worry about a fire inspection. The health unit inspects the sewerage system, and we just go by what they tell us.”
SCR No. 42 stated that “individual sewage treatment systems shall be contingent upon the owner providing the Department of Health and Hospitals, office of public health, with written and signed documentation from a Louisiana licensed sewage installer/maintenance provider which declares the system is operable and will function as designed.”
The resolution goes on to say, “The Cameron Parish Police Jury will be authorized to provide appropriate enforcement mechanisms to discourage citizens owning property within the boundaries of Holly Beach Sewerage Board from …. connecting multiple habitable structures to an individual sewerage system.”
This is where the water gets a little murky.
The Cajun Riviera Becomes FEMA town
I spoke with 12 residents in Holly Beach, most of whom preferred to remain anonymous. These homeowners rebuilt according to the codes and regulations.
They had numerous concerns about the ever-increasing number of old FEMA trailers that kept popping up all over Holly Beach. It’s obvious there are many 5,000-square-foot parcels that now house two FEMA trailers.
All motor homes and RVs are required to be maintained in road-ready condition should the need for another evacuation occur in the future. That means that each should be licensed, registered and have quick-release plumbing fixtures.
This does not seem to be the case with many of the trailers. Many units have a window air conditioner placed in the fire escape window, and many are electrically hard-wired. How can this be?
The Cameron Parish Permitting office website states that the office requires State Fire Marshal approval for all non-residential development, commercial development and apartments. I spoke to Thomas Landry, who reviews and approves all plans that fall in this category, at the planning office for the State Fire Marshal in Lake Charles.
He stated that any laundry facilities, offices or common areas require a building plan, and assured me that nobody has submitted plans for an RV park with standing RVs to be rented to the public.
Residents are concerned that the laundry facilities of the trailers in Holly Beach are draining water into an open ditch. Again, how can this be?
“It sounds like someone isn’t following proper protocol,” Landry told me. He went on to say, “As far as I know, FEMA trailers are designed for temporary housing, and are prohibited for any other use.”
FEMA Trailers 101
Back in March, 2007, the U.S. government started offering FEMA trailers left over from the Katrina and Rita disasters at fire-sale prices. In December, 2007, the government suddenly stopped selling the FEMA trailers because of the reports of formaldehyde in the construction of the trailers. (Trailers that were tested were often found to have five times the acceptable levels safe of formaldehyde for human habitation.)
A year later, the government was selling the trailers as scrap — not fit for human habitation. At that time, HUD removed all stickers approving the trailers for housing use.
Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde is very dangerous to one’s health, and has been linked to asthma, sore throats, sinus infections, nosebleeds and lung disease. The government has known for eight years that the formaldehyde in the FEMA trailers could cause long-term health problems, such as cancer or respiratory illness.
According to the Final Report on Formaldehyde Levels in FEMA-Supplied Travel Trailers, Park Models, and Mobile Homes (provided by the Centers for Disease Control), “Formaldehyde levels were different in different types of mobile homes and travel trailers, but all types tested had some high levels. At levels found in some trailers and mobile homes, formaldehyde exposure could affect health. Travel trailers had significantly higher average formaldehyde levels than mobile homes … We recommended that people with symptoms that could be linked to formaldehyde, and vulnerable populations such as children, elderly, and individuals with chronic diseases, be moved first.”
The CDC also explained that exposure to formaldehyde might increase the chance of getting cancer, even if the formaldehyde is at levels too low to cause symptoms.
Then in 2009, FEMA began its inventory reduction campaign, and a new batch of FEMA trailers, campers and mobile homes went on sale. They weren’t designated scrap, but were sold with a warning that they were manufactured with formaldehyde and hadn’t been tested.
While the government has stated that FEMA trailers should not be used for occupancy and are not intended for habitation, an online FEMA press release states that the trailers are suitable for other non-occupancy uses, such as office space or storage.
Those who purchased the trailers were required to sign a buyer’s certificate acknowledging that the trailer was not to be used as housing and would not be resold as housing.
FEMA placed a clearly-visible decal reading “NOT TO BE USED FOR HOUSING” on the door window of each travel trailer.
Give An Inch, Take A Mile
I asked the owner of Holly Beach Rentals and RV Park, Eric Monceaux, for some answers. He told me he has purchased more than 20 FEMA trailers at auctions over the past seven years, and that he now owns a total of 84 lots in Holly Beach.
When I asked him how he was getting around the statutes set by the state legislature, he told me that because he owned a business before Rita, he was given a special waiver in 2006 by the Department of Health and Hospitals to allow for the placement of two trailers per four lots. (It should be noted that before Rita, Monceaux owned a total of 10 lots, with his home and five cottages located on his property.)
Holly Beach is subdivided into six units. All of Monceaux’s property was in Unit One at the west end of Holly Beach.
When I spoke to the Police Jury, I was told that that the waiver only applied to the property that Monceaux owned before Hurricane Rita and any new property development would be held to the existing building codes and standards. I was also told that each project required new permits and inspections.
But is the Cameron Parish Police Jury enforcing these regulations? Monceaux is putting unchecked rows of FEMA trailers all over the area — all the way down to the east end of Holly Beach.
This has created an immense eyesore, and has earned the once quaint community the unflattering nickname of “FEMA town.”
There is no mention on Monceaux’s website that these are former FEMA trailers, nor are there stickers on the trailers that indicate they are former FEMA trailers.
Monceaux told me about half his renters are weekenders, while the other half have rented for longer periods.
I asked Monceaux how he planned to evacuate over 20 trailers in a short period of time should the need arise. He assured me, “I have lots of friends with trucks if I need to move them.”
This seems logistically impossible, as many of those friends may well be preoccupied with evacuating their own families in an emergency. It might be possible to get the first half dozen or so trailers out. But the possibility of returning to an evacuation area three or four times to remove the rest seems highly unrealistic.
When asked about the quick-release fittings, he assured me that his trailers were fitted with these. But he went on to say, “Even if they weren’t, I can just chop the lines off.”
There’s an interesting side note to all this. Shortly after Hurricane Rita, Monceaux started a Louisiana non-profit organization called CameronRecovery. org, naming himself and his wife, Jackie Monceaux, as directors. (File # 36079080N, filing date: 12-23-05.) It’s unclear what funds were raised or how the money was spent.
Residents With Concerns
For the homeowners in Holly Beach who’ve worked so hard and invested so much in the rebuilding of their homes, there is a high level of frustration as they watch their community turned into a giant trailer park.
Efforts to bring the community up to standards have largely fallen short. One gets the sense that there has been a lot of passing the buck and dropping the ball with regards to the problems brewing in Holly Beach.
Of the dozen residents I spoke with, only one was willing to allow me to use his name. The other residents cited numerous reasons for remaining anonymous, but the primary reason was fear of retaliation or property damage that, they say, seems to occur on the heels of any complaints to the Cameron Parish Police Jury or arguments with Monceaux, even though there is no proof that he is in any way involved in this property damage.
The Word From Baton Rouge
Monceaux has led his neighbors to believe that he was operating legally under a waiver provided by Dane Thibodeaux at the Dept. of Health and Hospitals in 2006. I spoke with Olivia Watkins, communications director for the Louisiana Dept. of Health and Hospitals in Baton Rouge. After looking into the matter, she issued the following statement:
• This gentleman (Monceaux) has not been issued a waiver. In fact, he has been denied several requests for lack of proof that his businesses operated there before the storm.
• We are committed to working with the residents and community members as they redevelop the area. Our role is to ensure public safety is protected as community members and business owners rebuild.
• The department does inspect the physical property on which a business or home owner is seeking to rebuild. We conduct a site evaluation to ensure that the property meets the size and site requirements.
• Once a waste system is put in place, DHH team members go back out to evaluate the instillation of the system and chlorination chamber.
• The Police Jury does work with the department on enforcement in the event that a property owner does not abide by the regulations for sewage systems on their property.
To some, the enforcement of some of the regulations seems to have been rather arbitrary. One resident summed it up quite well when he said, “It’s up to the parish to uphold the laws, but there’s a lack of consistent application of the law.”
A total of 48 homes have been constructed in Holly Beach since Hurricane Ike. These 48 homes are all elevated, and built to code to the letter of the law.
Residents are incredibly concerned with the damage the trailers could do in the event of another hurricane or flooding. One resident stated, “Storms and flood waters can turn these trailers into giant bowling balls that will do more damage to our homes than the initial storm.”
Holly Beach has experienced a loss of more than 400 feet of shoreline over the past 20 years due to erosion. Still, it is unclear to the residents exactly who is responsible for maintaining the beach. It would appear that sand dunes are being deliberately plowed down to create easier access to the beach for the trailer renters.
Many of the homeowners have told me of friends or relatives who have considered purchasing lots for a vacation home — some even starting building projects only to cancel plans because of all the trailers that are popping up all over the community.
Dropping Property Value
In addition to the eyesore and prospective property damage, long-time resident Brian Benoit was concerned about his declining property value, which is a direct result of the condition of the area.
“I had an insurance appraisal done two years ago, and again last month. My property value has dropped $55,000 in that time, even though I have continued to improve my property.”
Benoit has lived in Holly Beach since 1962. He grew up there and raised his children there. Neighbors like him are not so sure it’s now as safe a place for their grandchildren to play as it was, what with the constant influx of transient weekend vacationers who come to Holly Beach to party.
When I asked Benoit why he continues to rebuild here, he responded, “This is not just my home; my heart and my soul are here.”
If Cameron Parish doesn’t adhere to the building codes and regulations that are on the books, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) and the Dept. of Homeland Security have the power to withdraw funding for the whole parish in the event of another natural disaster. This should be a concern not just for the residents of Holly Beach, but also for the residents and businesses of the entire parish.
A Little Help From The Private Sector
Holly Beach did get some help from the private sector on Sept. 20, when Citgo, in partnership with the Coalition to Restore Costal Louisiana (CRCL), commemorated the nine-year anniversary of Hurricane Rita with a volunteer effort to plant dune grass plugs along the five-mile stretch of Holly Beach.
Founded in 1988, the Coalition to Restore Costal Louisiana is a non-profit organization whose mission is the protection and restoration of a sustainable coastal Louisiana. To learn more about coastal restoration efforts, go to: www.crcl.org.