By Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
December 13, 2009
Chris Granger – Times-Picayune archive – Boats are beached around the St. Bernard Parish Courthouse after Hurricane Katrina in September 2005.
Enshrouded in a grove of oak trees off St. Bernard Highway, the St. Bernard Parish Courthouse has been a fixture in St. Bernard Parish politics dating back to the Great Depression and the early days of Leander Perez.
Along with the rest of the parish, the courthouse was flooded during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, and sat in 3 feet of water for weeks. Courthouse staff have been back at work in the building since late September 2005, at times operating in makeshift work spaces in the lobby and amid reams of soggy title records and lawsuits submerged by the floodwaters. But soon the entire operation will have to move to an alternate site, after contractors discovered elevated levels of mold throughout the walls and air ducts in the 70-year-old building.
The mold study came as part of the planning for a major FEMA-financed overhaul of the courthouse, which suffers from a chronic leaky roof and has not had hot water for years. An October environmental assessment from an outside contractor, Driskill Envrionmental Consultants, said the mold grew to such an extent because the parish had no professional mold remediation done after Katrina’s flooding, only wiping down the walls and floors.
Courthouse staff said they knew repairs would be happening, but it only became apparent in recent months that the entire building would need to be vacated.
Some of the mold discovered in the report, stachybotrys mold, produces dangerous toxins that some doctors believe can be traced to lung infections. But state epidemiologist Raoult Ratard, who visually inspected the mold at the courthouse in recent weeks, said the more pernicious mold was mostly present in closets away from where employees are working.
Still, he believes a full cleaning is necessary.
“Obviously that building has a lot of problems, so when you do the remediation and you do the cleanup, you protect yourself,” Ratard said.
Unlike hazardous chemicals or lead contamination, there are no standards for how much mold can be present in a building because people react so differently. Ratard said he did not expect employees to have any major health problems, particularly since they had been working there for more than four years without complaints. “There is no number that will tell you, ‘The building needs to be remediated,'” Ratard said. “The standard really is going through and seeing the quality of life of the people when they are in the building.”
The largest mold problems in the report were documented in the parish assessor’s office, where parish officials have installed scrubber fans to temporarily improve the air quality. Other concentrations have been found throughout the building, including the main courtroom and several judges’ offices.
Parish Assessor Marlene Vinsanau and District Attorney Jack Rowley referred questions to Parish President Craig Taffaro. For now, the nearly 100 courthouse employees are waiting for the parish government, which oversees the courthouse budget, to find an alternate site. Taffaro said the parish should have a new site finalized this week, and that the relocation could last for as long as a year.
Transitioning the entire parish justice system will be a logistical feat involving five 34th Judicial District judges and their staffs, the parish assessor’s office, the district attorney’s office and the entire clerk’s office and its electronic records system. Details about the move have been hazy so far.
“I know the talk is to move us out, but exactly when, or where, or what, I don’t know,” Clerk of Court Lena Torres said.
Judge Kirk Vaughn said initial expectations were that the entire staff would be moved by the beginning of 2010, based on recent discussions with Taffaro, but he hasn’t heard anything new in recent weeks.
“If you’re talking about five courtrooms and offices and the clerk’s office and the assessor’s office, I can’t imagine that being done by early January,” Vaughn said. “We need jury boxes. We’re set up to where we have large court dates for every division, and every week we have a large number of criminal cases coming up.”
Taffaro acknowledged the complexity of the move, but said the most efficient way to fix the mold problems and complete the renovations will be to vacate the courthouse.
“The easiest way for us to remediate the building and not interrupt functions is to try to move the functions to an alternate site during that period,” he said. “If we vacate the building instead of partitioning sections off one at a time, we’ll likely cut the repair time by at least a third, or maybe even larger than that.”
The courthouse repairs and renovations are beginning almost a year after the parish government complex was rebuilt. Taffaro and parish chief administrative officer Col. David Dysart said FEMA’s historical review process has pushed back renovations at the courthouse.
FEMA has not yet obligated money for the move, but an agency spokesman said $367,000 has so far been set aside for courthouse repairs, including an overhaul of the electrical, plumbing and ventilation systems, as well as fixes for courtroom windows, benches and walls.
The move would mark the first time for court to be held outside the building since 1939, when laborers with the Works Progress Administration put the finishing touches on the art deco structure. The courthouse was largely the brainchild of Solis Seifert, whose architecture firm that also designed the Louisiana State Capitol and Charity Hospital.
Parish Historian William Hyland recalled Seifert telling him that the courthouse design was inspired by the grand temple of Mesopotamia, an ancient building in what is present-day Iraq.
Until the 1960s it was the sole hub for parish politics in St. Bernard, housing the parish’s Police Jury, School Board and all government offices. Judge Leander Perez Sr., the legendary arch-segregationist political boss of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, held court there, first as a judge and later as district attorney.
The main courtroom is a majestic, wood-paneled room with stained-glass windows depicting the Battle of New Orleans, which happened just down the highway, and the settlement of St. Bernard by the Canary Islanders in the Spanish colonial period.
Information on Riverstone Residential knowingly exposing tenants to extreme amounts of mold toxins at Toxic Mold Infested Jefferson Lakes Apartments in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Political Action Committee – NAA – files Amicus Brief in mold case (two infant deaths in mold filled apt – Wasatch Prop Mgmt) citing US Chamber/ACOEM ‘litigation defense report’ to disclaim health effects of indoor mold & limit financial risk for industry
“Changes in construction methods have caused US buildings to become perfect petri dishes for mold and bacteria to flourish when water is added. Instead of warning the public and teaching physicians that the buildings were causing illness; in 2003 the US Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, a think-tank, and a workers comp physician trade organization mass marketed an unscientific nonsequitor to the courts to disclaim the adverse health effects to stave off liability for financial stakeholders of moldy buildings. Although publicly exposed many times over the years, the deceit lingers in US courts to this very day.” Sharon Noonan Kramer