Sinkhole Hits Businesses, Home Values in Rural Louisiana

By Sheila V. Kumar | October 2, 2012

Dennis Landry’s bed and breakfast was in the middle of a record business year before a sinkhole prompted authorities to tell 150 households in the towns of Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou in Louisiana to evacuate. Soon after, wary customers began cancelling their reservations as the sinkhole expanded, swallowing up hundreds of feet of swamp and his profits with it.

“It was like we were clipping along at 65 miles per hour and all of a sudden, it was like all four wheels came off. All of a sudden, bam. Hit a brick wall,” he said of the sinkhole that emerged in early August.

The sinkhole is likely to affect property values in the idyllic bayou community where he and his neighbors had hoped to retire in peace.

“Before this happened, this was probably one of the more desirable neighborhoods to live in in the parish,” he said, describing his home as waterfront property perched on the edge of a bucolic bayou.

Landry and his wife, Pat, have been running their bed and breakfast since the mid-’90s and business had been booming after the popular History Channel reality series “Swamp People” began attracting tourists to the swamplands of Assumption Parish.

Thanks to the antics of alligator-wrestling Cajuns, almost 100 percent of their beds had been booked for alligator season, he said. But cancellations after the Aug. 3 evacuation order have caused him almost $6,000 in losses.

“I think all people would agree, their property values have been greatly diminished by all of this happening. I think the problem with the property values is going to linger for a long time,” he said.

Wayne Blanchard, the assessor for Assumption Parish, said it will be years before they’re able to discern the financial toll the sinkhole has taken on resident properties. Property assessors track housing values in the parish by monitoring sales, he said, and properties in a given area generally tend to be sold a few at a time.

“We didn’t reassess this year because of the situation. It’s anybody’s guess right now. Assessors need proof of sales in an area to really be able to tell what values have done,” he said.

Residents had been reporting gas bubbles and mysterious tremors in the bayous for weeks before the sinkhole appeared. The sinkhole, on land owned by Houston-based Texas Brine Co., initially began as an acre-sized hole that quickly liquefied into muck, toppling cypress trees as it rapidly expanded. Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency in the parish.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have said the sinkhole was caused by the collapse of a brine cavern below the surface. The cavern, which was plugged and abandoned by Texas Brine in 2011, is currently undergoing sonar testing that will hopefully show more about how the sinkhole formed.

Officials with the company that harvests brine for industrial uses have said tremors recorded in the area since May could have played a role in the cavern’s collapse.

But officials at the U.S. Geological Survey say the cavern’s failure caused the tremors — not the other way around.

The evacuation order affected 150 homes in Bayou Corne and Grand Bayou. John Boudreaux, director of the parish’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, estimates about only about half actually left.

Texas Brine has been providing weekly housing assistance checks to evacuated residents

Grand Bayou resident Randy Rousseau said the disaster is the last straw for him.

“I don’t feel comfortable here. I don’t feel safe. I don’t think this will get any better. The sooner I can get out of here, the better,” he said.

He’s had to evacuate three times previously. That includes when the town was evacuated on Christmas day in 2003 for 50 days when natural gas began leaking up from a salt dome storage cavern and bubbling up into water wells.

Rousseau has been staying in a trailer parked outside the body shop he owns in Belle Rose. He said he closed the shop after many of his customers evacuated.

His house in Grand Bayou has been on the market since October 2011, and he fears the sinkhole could harm his ability to find a buyer. An appraisal valued his home at around $225,000 and he said he’d be willing to get rid of it for a mere fraction of the cost at $70,000.

“You’re not supposed to go in that direction. I’m 56-years-old. I shouldn’t have to take a loss like that,” he said.