By Chris Kirkham, The Times-Picayune
March 28, 2010
The gavel has fallen in the majestic courthouse on St. Bernard Highway since 1939, but in less than a month the entire staff of file clerks, judges, assessor’s staff and district attorneys will vacate the art deco building for much more modest quarters inside a strip mall off West Judge Perez Drive.
Nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters covered the first floor of the courthouse in Chalmette and submerged many records in the clerk’s office, the parish is preparing for a monumental move that will put nearly 100 staff members in a series of six vacant buildings in the Village Square shopping center. Repairs to the 70-year-old courthouse were coming anyway, but contractors discovered elevated levels of mold in the building last year that prompted parish government and FEMA officials to decide that the building should be emptied for a thorough renovation.
It has taken since last fall for parish and FEMA officials to find a suitable temporary location for the courthouse. They looked at several vacant commercial buildings across Chalmette, including the old Schwegmann’s shopping center on West Judge Perez Drive, but there were concerns about the amount of space and the structural integrity of some of the options.
“It’s been a long process; much longer than we hoped for,” Parish President Craig Taffaro said. “But as difficult of a project as it’s been, it’s been refreshing to really see the agencies work together and accomplish this.”
The judge and the tattoo parlor
Taffaro said the move will take place during the weekend of April 16-18, meaning all the records and personal belongings will need to be packed up beforehand. Although he said “the goal is to disrupt things as little as possible,” Taffaro said that undoubtedly judges may have to adjust their schedules and continue some cases during the days before and after the move.
The court setup in the Village Square shopping center will be unconventional, to say the least, especially for a staff that has never worked outside the current building.
Judge Robert Buckley, for example, will have his chambers below a tattoo parlor. The main courtroom will be in the building next door, and Buckley and court workers will enter through a hole contractors carved in the wall between the two buildings.
A red brick building nearby but not connected to the strip will be split in half, housing the chambers for Judge Perry Nicosia and the entire assessor’s office, which normally has its own wing of the courthouse. None of the buildings are owned by people from St. Bernard.
So many files, so little room
Perhaps the biggest headache is for the clerk of court’s office, which must move reams of paper records and computer terminals to a three-story building. Because of the sheer amount of paperwork, the files will be kept on the first floor and clerk’s staff will be on the second floor. The third floor will house servers for the computers; it’s unlikely that heavy files could be stored there.
Clerk of Court Lena Torres said she was unaware that the move would be happening so soon, and was skeptical that all of the files in the courthouse — including mortgage and title records dating back to the 1800s, marriage licenses and civil and criminal cases — would all fit in the first floor of the building.
“Our records have been all in one place since I’ve worked in the courthouse, since 1940,” Torres said. “If they don’t move all the records, I don’t know how I can operate.”
Taffaro said FEMA has agreed to pay to digitize many of the records that have not already been scanned into the system. But Torres said that process is nowhere near complete.
For the public, parking may actually be more plentiful than the street parking at the current courthouse. There is a full parking lot at the strip center that is often empty. Signs will direct the public to the various offices.
Courthouse repairs could take a year
It’s unclear exactly how long the temporary quarters will be needed. Initial estimates are that the work could take up to a year, Taffaro said.
Once the staff is moved out, contractors will remediate the mold in the building and then move forward with a complete overhaul of the courthouse’s electrical and plumbing systems. Since Katrina, there has been no hot running water in the courthouse. There was no professional remediation after the flood, only a cursory cleaning where some employees wiped down the walls and floors.
So far FEMA has obligated $367,000 to the project, but the project costs will rise dramatically. The agency has agreed to pay for the move, the rent at Village Square – nearly $300,000 for one year, according to lease records – and the renovations. The final costs have not been tallied, Taffaro said.
Louisiana – St. Bernard Courthouse is infested with mold – leave to the some in Louisiana to allow employees to continue working in a Katrina flooded, mold filled building then downplay the health effects
Political Action Committee – National Apartment Association (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
Information on Riverstone Residential, the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency, and the owners of Toxic Mold Infested Jefferson Lakes Apartments in Baton Rouge, Louisiana continuing to allow tenants to be exposed to extreme amounts of mold toxins
Irrefutable evidence indicates that Riverstone Residential, Guarantee Service Team of Professionals, & plaintiffs’ attorney, J Arthur Smith III, must have agreed to exclude evidence that would have shown the owners of Jefferson Lakes Apartments & Riverstone Residential had knowledge of the severe MOLD INFESTATION at the complex before we moved in