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Houses no longer on solid ground
Foundations stewed in Katrina floodwater
Sunday, May 07, 2006
By Mark Waller Staff writer

Yet another side effect of Hurricane Katrina has emerged -- underneath people's houses.

Contractors are reporting a backlog of jobs to repair foundations that took a beating from Katrina. Not just house-raising jobs, a much-discussed topic in light of the latest advisories for rebuilding, but repairs to existing cracked and sinking foundations.

When trees went down, their roots often yanked at piers under raised houses. After water covered the ground for weeks, followed by several mostly rainless months, soils contracted and shifted. While gutting flooded houses, homeowners discovered floors that had probably grown uneven over several years.

"It was never like this," said Greg Abry, who represents the sixth generation of his family in the New Orleans house shoring business Abry Brothers Inc. "It's probably more than tripled."

Since Katrina, Abry Brothers has received 40 to 50 calls a day from people needing foundation work, up from 10 or 12 daily inquiries before the storm, he said.

David Lauricella, who runs a small family shoring business based in Harahan, said his calls went up from five or six a day to as many as 25.

"Right now, I probably lose more jobs that I actually get, because I just can't get to them," Lauricella said.

The Jefferson Parish Department of Inspection and Code Enforcement reported issuing about 20 permits for foundation repairs in the eight months before Katrina and about 150 in the eight months after.

New Orleans officials said they couldn't break out numbers specifically for foundations from the overall tally of building permits, but contractors said much of the increased workload has been in New Orleans, possibly because of the city's large stock of older houses built on piers, which they say are more susceptible to shifting than slabs.

An Abry Brothers crew worked Friday in Rosemary Pic's Uptown basement on Jefferson Avenue.

Pic and her husband used to rent out the basement as a separate apartment, but in recent years it served as storage and laundry space.

Four feet of water stewed there for days, so the Pics had the basement stripped to the studs. That's when they discovered termite damage in the posts holding up their floor. And the concrete pads under the posts were pushing into the ground and cracking.

The project manager, Scott Wolff, said the house took years to get out of level, but the termites and flooding likely exacerbated the problem, leaving the floor sagging 5 to 6 inches.

"Sitting in water for two weeks, and then you have months with no rain, it just does some strange things," Wolff said.

The crew poured new concrete across the length of the foundation to replace the sinking pads. Temporary posts held up the floor while workers took out brittle beams Friday. They will replace the termite-damaged wood before pushing up the floor to the proper position using hydraulic jacks.

Pic said cracks in her ceilings even before Katrina long indicated a need for leveling. Since the storm, though, her floorboards started buckling in spots, even though the water didn't rise high enough to touch them. She thinks they got steamed from below.

Repairs can be costly

Foundation repairs cost $5,000 for a minor job to tens of thousands for larger houses more seriously off-kilter, contractors said. They said insurance rarely covers the work, which is normally regarded as a maintenance problem and not storm damage.

So Lauricella marveled at a job in the Bywater neighborhood where the wind toppled a towering pecan tree behind a house, and its roots pulled up the brick piers from the ground, leaving a corner of the structure dangling over the resulting crater.

In three decades of righting houses built on piers, Lauricella said, he has never seen such damage from tree roots. He's had dozens of calls about root damage since Katrina.

"The roots were all embedded and going around the bottom of the brick piers," Lauricella said. "And when they tear loose, they rip everything with it. Chunks of cement are just pulled right out of the ground."

"This is stuff people would never think of, the damage just the roots would do," he said.

In many cases, however, homeowners are likely having their foundations reinforced or leveled just to take advantage of the circumstances, getting long-needed fixes while they carry out other work.

Madeleine Madona, a part-time general contractor herself, is doing that with a Lakeview double belonging to her two daughters.

Five feet of water filled the house, which is raised 3 feet on piers.

"I could tell when we took the Sheetrock out that the floors were dipping in the middle," Madona said. "You take off your hardwood floors, and you see just the bare sub-flooring, and you see where the highs and lows are."

The flood might have worsened bowing of the floor joists, she said, but the house had been sinking in the center for 20 years, she estimates.

Now that it's a gutted shell, Madona is seizing the occasion to get it shored and leveled, hiring Abry Brothers, which did the last foundation restoration there two decades ago.

"If you're ever going to do it, this is the time to do it," said Alan Shepherd, a salesman for Davie Shoring in Kenner. "All of a sudden, the phones are ringing off the hook."

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Mark Waller can be reached at or (504) 717-7706