Friday, April 18, 2008

Lawsuits surprise some trailer users

42 are sued as parish launches 1st wave of cases

If Thursday was moving day, no one told Craig Furden.

He has been living in a FEMA travel trailer at 713 Causeway Blvd. in the Shrewsbury community since Hurricane Katrina. Despite monthly visits from a federal inspector, he said he had no idea his address appeared in one of 42 fresh lawsuits against owners of property that still harbor the mobile box dwellings.

"Mine's on the list?" Furden said. "They didn't tell me nothing."

Jefferson Parish filed the suits Thursday to start the final push to rid unincorporated areas of what some officials have dubbed persistent eyesores. Though all the properties identified in the initial round of suits are located in East Jefferson, code enforcement officers have targeted as many as 600 trailers parishwide, including 421 in West Jefferson. More suits are planned.

The parish has long banned trailers in many of its zoning districts. But after Katrina-related flooding damaged thousands of houses in August 2005, the Parish Council suspended the law.

In March 2007, the ban was reinstated, and Parish President Aaron Broussard's administration began pressuring residents to leave the trailers and move into houses. The deadline was March 1.

Though some trailers remain, authorities have excised almost 17,000 of them since the summer of 2006. Andrew Thomas, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it removes more than 50 trailers each week from Jefferson Parish and its six municipalities.

Eliminating the final trailers could prove a Byzantine process. Code enforcers must find them, some of which are hidden behind high backyard fences. Property owners must be located through title searches. FEMA administrators must be consulted. Then legal action can kick in.

Residents do have options, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Bert Smith said. With the help of FEMA administrators, parish attorneys will weed out property owners who have applied for home repair money -- but are still waiting for it -- from FEMA or the National Flood Insurance Program, he said. For instance, Assistant Parish Attorney Matthew Friedman cut eight potential lawsuits from Thursday's batch after conferring with federal authorities, Smith said.

Trailer residents with questions are encouraged to contact FEMA or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Smith warned that once a lawsuit is filed, court costs will begin to accrue. It will be a judge's decision whether to charge a defendant with the fees.

The suit filings could become a weekly habit for Friedman, Smith said. "How many he'll file next, and when that will be, depends on how complicated the lawsuits will be."

Complicated could define Furden's situation
His trailer has a cozy look that transcends a temporary shelter. Potted flowers in full bloom hang in baskets from an attached awning. A glass terrarium is on display by the front stairs. Padded chairs invite visitors to sit a while.

When Katrina evicted Furden and his then-wife from a house they rented in Metairie, they moved into the trailer on Causeway. Their landlords, David and Angela Celentano, rented Furden the lot, which houses a large warehouse that once doubled as a flea market.

Furden and his wife divorced a year ago, and he kept the trailer. As a renter, however, he was unsure what effect the new lawsuit would have on him.

"They really shouldn't be bothering me," he said.

A call to a New Orleans address listed for the Celentanos went unanswered Thursday.

Louis Kabel's family also could find themselves immersed in a head-scratcher of a situation. His brother-in-law, John Sternberger, owns the property at 3801 Bauvais St. in Metairie, the target of another parish trailer suit. The Kabels live in the house.

A FEMA inspector examined the abandoned trailer in the front yard Monday, Kabel said, but no one has come to cart it away. Nonetheless, Kabel said he understood the Broussard administration's abhorrence toward the trailers.

"It's been plenty of time," Kabel said. "People should be settled in now."