Updated at: 07/08/2013 5:05 PM
By LITTICE BACON-BLOOD
(AP) BAYOU CORNE, La. - The sob is deep and exhaled on a frustrated sigh.
"I cannot stand this!" The words burst from Annette Richie and ping off the bare walls of the empty living room as her neighbors of 20 years, Bucky and Joanie Mistretta, recall happier times along Bayou Corne.
"I know, I know," Joanie Mistretta said, soothing her. "You come back now and it’s just sad."
They were supposed to be planning camping trips, cookouts and potlucks. Instead, the Mistrettas, the Richies and many neighbors in the swampy Assumption Parish community are packing up decades’ worth of belongings, chased from waterfront homes that were supposed to be retirement nests by a gas-emitting, 22-acre sinkhole less than a mile away.
The sinkhole, discovered Aug. 3, resulted from a collapsed underground salt dome cavern about 40 miles south of Baton Rouge. After oil and natural gas came oozing up and acres of the swampland liquefied into muck, the community’s 350 residents were advised to evacuate.
Texas Brine Co., the operator of the salt dome, is negotiating buyouts of residents who have not joined lawsuits filed against the company. Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said 92 buyout offers have been made, with 44 accepted so far.
The Mistrettas, retired educators, are taking the buyout offer.
Richie, a high school literacy teacher, and her husband are part of a class-action lawsuit that’s scheduled for trial next year. Both families have bought new houses, in Ascension and Assumption parishes. After two decades together in Bayou Corne, they won’t be neighbors anymore.
"We just feel that this place is not ever going to be what it once was," said Bucky Mistretta. "It was just a beautiful, pristine place on the bayou. And now that’s gone, and we just don’t feel safe about what’s underneath us."
Residents who want to stay are wrestling with the same fears as their fleeing neighbors: Is it safe? Will the slow-growing sinkhole undermine the area’s infrastructure, including Louisiana 70? And will the natural gas bubbling to the surface on the bayou accumulate in confined spaces and cause an explosion?
Although parish officials have said they don’t think either will happen, they are monitoring both issues.
Gas has been detected under at least four homes on the north side of the community, but the levels were low, said John Boudreaux, director of the Assumption Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Officials expect the sinkhole area to stabilize once debris fills the void created by the collapsed cavern. However, the land has continued to shift and the hole has continued to grow.
A salt dome is a large, naturally occurring underground salt deposit. Companies drill on the dome’s outskirts to create caverns in which to extract brine that is used in the petrochemical refining process, or for storage of such things as hydrocarbons. Officials say a cavern was being mined too close to the edge of the Napoleon Salt Dome, which caused the "unprecedented" side wall collapse.
The state fined the company $260,000 last year for its slow response in following state directives to build a containment berm around the sinkhole and to install air monitoring devices in homes.
Dennis Landry, a 20-year property owner who developed and sold the lots in his subdivision and who owns a boat launch business that fronts Sportsman Drive, is staying put despite the sinkhole.
"It’s hard to leave a beautiful little bayou paradise unless you feel it’s absolutely necessary, and thus far, we’re just hanging on," he said. "We go to the meetings. We get daily reports. We check the blog for any information. We have gas monitors inside of our homes. We just take it day by day."
Louisiana Highway 70 divides this pint-sized community of trailers, wood and brick homes. The south side is newer, sports an upscale subdivision of 22 houses and has Bayou Corne flowing through the backyards.
With street names like Crawfish Stew, Sauce Piquante, Bream Street and Sportsman Drive, it’s clear that the bayou flowing through en route to Lake Verret is the main draw for many of the residents. Boats and campers are a fixture in most driveways, whether paved concrete or a bed of rocks.
The "no trespassing" signs in many yards, however, are new.
After 26 years, Kenneth Simoneaux said he is ready to leave his acre of lush land bordering a narrow canal that empties into Bayou Corne. He and his wife are living in a 29-foot camper trailer in what he calls "a concrete village" in nearby Pierre Part.
"I never thought anybody could push me to the point where I would actually be ashamed to admit where I live," he said, sitting on a folding chair outside his trailer. "I was so proud of my home. I’m lost."
Landry lives on the south side of the highway and thinks a majority of the residents in the subdivision don’t want to move. A few, mainly those with young children, will probably leave, he said.
The close-knit, peaceful and family friendly community will change, Landry said. No one knows yet what will become of the vacant, bought-out property. Will houses be torn down and made into green space? Will they be occupied or left vacant?
Cranch said Texas Brine hasn’t decided what will become of the properties it buys.
"Unfortunately and sadly enough, I think we are going to witness the partial destruction and elimination of a wonderful little community here on the bayou," Landry said.
Describing the house, friends and community she will leave behind, Richie said, "It’s like a funeral."
While the parish has issued an evacuation order based on safety concerns, officials are not forcing anyone to leave. But they have informed residents of the potential risks, Boudreaux said.
"Everyone has a different risk tolerance," he said.
For Richie and the Mistrettas who live on the north side, it’s the thought of the unexpected that’s driving their decision to pack up and go.
"In a way, I guess we were lucky because we could have gotten swallowed up like that poor man in Florida did," Joanie Mistretta said, referring to 37-year-old Jeffrey Bush who was killed by a sinkhole last March. "And that’s what we think could happen here."
The gas accumulation scares Richie. Monitors already have picked up the presence of gas under a slab house located across the street from her.
"Maybe nothing’s ever going to happen. Maybe the ground is just going to start sinking below us," Richie said. "I can’t stay with all those unknowns. It’s like what’s next?"
Associated Press reporter Stacey Plaisance contributed to this report from Bayou Corne.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)