Elizabeth Tomlinson, Attaway, Denise | 4/14/2009 1:40:22 AM
When Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Linda and Pete Ibert took it in stride. The house on St. Andrew Street in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans had been in the Ibert family since 1901 and had been standing virtually unscathed since the 1800s.
"It hadn't gone anywhere and so we weren't going anywhere," recalled Linda Ibert. Instead they did what they'd always done, put plastic on the windows, closed the shutters, and filled the bathtubs.
At that time of the hurricane, the Iberts had a house full of guests, including a friend from Germany. The Iberts also were expecting their son and daughter-in-law home from New York on Saturday night, although they were running late. When they finally arrived, the Iberts learned of the extensive traffic jams clogging the roads caused by people evacuating the city. It was then that the Iberts began to take the hurricane more seriously. By Sunday they were concerned their German friend would not make it out of New Orleans before the storm. They insisted he leave so that he could catch his flight home.
Throughout the weekend, more and more family arrived at the Ibert home to weather the storm together. By late Sunday evening, everyone was getting concerned. Two family members left for New Iberia, reducing the total in the house to 11 people and three cats.
By the time the hurricane passed, the Iberts thought they had dodged the bullet. They only sustained some minor damage to the front of the house. "Not that big of a deal," Linda Ibert said.
With the electricity out in the city, the 11 people stayed on at the Ibert house, enjoying the customary hurricane party in progress. A gas stove ensured that cooking was not a problem. Food was plentiful and everyone sat on the floor playing games. With windows opened on both sides of the house, good air flow made the conditions inside tolerable. The party continued until Wednesday morning when the water was shut off by the city, unfortunately in the middle of Linda Ibert’s shower. "It was all fun and games until then," she said. "Then it wasn't funny anymore."
By this time they had heard that the levees had broken, but their neighborhood hadn’t received any of the flood waters. Communications were hit and miss, but finally Pete and Linda Ibert's son called and insisted they go to New Iberia to be with them. The Iberts agreed to leave. With the loss of potable water, the 11 people and three cats really had no choice. They all needed to find another place to stay.
Expecting to be back soon, the Iberts left with minimal clothing, just enough for a week. No need for more as Linda Ibert explained, "I was going back and would be back home for Saturday because we were leaving for Paris on the 9th. We never made it."
As luck would have it, a house in Lafayette owned by friends of the Iberts was available. Normally rented to local college students, the house was vacant due to the owners' plans to renovate it. Instead, they rented it to the Iberts who settled in as best they could for what they knew would be an indeterminable length of time.
Although they had a radio with a small television in Lafayette, they didn't use the television. As a result, they never saw the news footage of the flooding and initially thought the reports were exaggerated. At some point during their stay, a friend brought them a television with a screen big enough for viewing and they were then able to see what was happening in their city. They were thankful and relieved that their house was safe.
A week after the storm, Linda Ibert was able to track down her employer and call him. She reported that everything was fine, but he interrupted, "Everything is not fine. You need to turn on the TV because your house is burning right now!"
The family home, having survived Katrina, escaped the flooding, and having stood proud since the 1800s, now succumbed to the fires spreading through the city. "We watched our house burn on CNN at 8 o’clock in the morning," Pete Ibert said. The news replayed the scenes and over and over the Iberts saw their house burning. Yet, they couldn't really admit it was gone.
"It was surreal," Linda Ibert remembers.
Shortly after, the Iberts found out they could view New Orleans via satellite on the Internet. Pete Ibert immediately went to the site to search for his house. And there it was. The satellite photo showed nothing on the lot but a pile of rubble, still smoldering.
"There's not one thing I could do about it," said a very pragmatic Linda Ibert. "You gotta get up in the morning and move on."
After Hurricane Rita hit southwest Louisiana just three weeks after Katrina, Pete and Linda Ibert discussed their options. They didn't necessarily have to return to New Orleans. Pete Ibert, an engineer, felt he could get work anywhere. But Linda Ibert said “No” to the idea of moving away. "There's no place I want to go," Linda Ibert remembers saying. “I hadn't ever thought I would go someplace else."
In mid-October, the couple was able to move into a rental unit located around the corner from the site of their burned home in New Orleans. Linda Ibert wanted to rebuild right away, but her husband insisted they wait a year before making any major decisions. Linda Ibert acquiesced; thinking that waiting a year would only mean the move into the new house would be delayed until 2007. She could wait until then. "I never realized it takes forever to build a new house!" says Linda Ibert in retrospect. "Truly, it is not as easy as everyone thinks."
Whenever Pete and Linda Ibert mentioned rebuilding, their friends were excited and told them how fun it was to build a new house. But Linda Ibert didn't find it fun. She found it hard work with “a million” decisions to be made. Choosing among the myriad of options could be overwhelming at times.
Linda Ibert found the decisions especially difficult because she was starting from scratch. "There's not anything to base things on, you know," she said. "There's no furniture or family pieces. It's a difficult concept to explain and for people to understand. When you tell others your home burned to the ground - that it means you have nothing."
There was one thing that survived, but only because it was not in the house when it burned. Linda Ibert's father, now deceased, had taken a photograph of the front exterior of the house years before and she had given it to Pete's mother. She was not to know at the time that that act would later come back to her as such a blessing. "That photo is all I have of the house. And of something my dad did."
Both Pete and Linda Ibert were first children. As first-borns, they held the family heirlooms, antiques, photographs, and other items handed down through the years from each of their respective families. Now it was all gone. "We didn't have a thing," said Pete Ibert. "No pictures, no mementos. We had a written history of the family since 1901. We lost all the history that we had. The kids - they have no pictures of them as children." He paused and looked away a moment. "Makes me mad when I think about it. Losing pictures and history means a lot - the house can be replaced."
The house though, held their memories even within its architectural features. Pete Ibert glances over at the staircase, picturing what was once there. "My great-grandfather slid down that banister when he was a kid!" he said with emphasis. "My mother slid down it. I slid down it. My kids slid down it." They had the stairs rebuilt as closely as they could be to the original, given today's code requirements and the need to reverse the direction of the staircase. A few modifications were required, but Pete insisted they be done in such a way as to allow unimpeded trips down the banister for future generations. "I want my grandkids to slide down it too."
The original Ibert house on St. Andrew Street had always been referred to by Pete Ibert's family as "the Aunts' house" for the original family members to inhabit the house beginning in 1901. Five women, all school teachers, lived there until the last moved out in the early 1960s. As a child, Pete had lived nearby, but around 1962, his family moved into "the Aunts' house." His mother made changes here and there according to the style trends of the time, that is until his father made her stop, wanting to preserve the architectural history.
Pete Ibert graduated from the Naval Academy and military life led him and his wife around the world, often far from the St. Andrew house. In 1998, Pete Ibert's mother moved out of the house and into another around the corner. After 18 moves within the span of their marriage, Pete (now retired) and Linda Ibert were ready to settle back home. They bought "the Aunts' house" and moved in. This was their 19th move and was intended to be their last. When Hurricane Katrina hit, they had just completed a $150,000 renovation.
Six months after the storm and the fire that destroyed their home, the Ibert's son Pat, a civil engineer, had an opportunity to come back to New Orleans on a job with his company. While there, he intended to help arrange the rebuilding of the family home for his parents. After about six to nine months, Pat Ibert decided to strike out on his own and opened his own construction company. His parents became his first clients.
Patrick Ibert was very interested in a product called Aerated, Autoclaved Concrete, or AAC. AAC is fire-proof, termite-resistant, and offers great insulation value, as well as a strong framework against hurricane-strength winds. His parents' rebuild seemed the perfect application for this product, so he used AAC for the foundation and exterior walls of the home. "He built us an energy efficient home," says Pete Ibert.
Although energy-efficient, it was the massive strength of the structure that did not go unnoticed. As the neighbors watched the new house go up, many stopped by to talk. "This is a fortress!" exclaimed one neighbor. Another neighbor, a fireman, commented "the next hurricane - I know where I'm going!" Linda Ibert reports that her husband's military friends refer to it as "a bunker."
The energy efficiency aspects of the home go beyond the AAC and its insulating value. Solar panels give electricity for the television and lights. A solar heater warms the home’s water. Windows are arranged for optimal air flow. When open with the ceiling fans on, the Iberts find they do not need to run the air conditioner nearly as much as before. “We do use it though,” Pete Ibert said. “We’re trying to live a little green, but we’re not as green as Pat would like us to be. We’re . . . pale green,” he finished with a laugh.
The old privy in the back yard will be renovated into a cistern. Bricks salvaged from the rubble of the original house will be used to create a patio. Water from the cistern will be utilized for irrigation and to feed the fountain that will be on the patio.
The new home was constructed so that the front façade appears as it would have in the 1800s. Although similar to the original house, the footprint is slightly different and the square footage is reduced. It holds true to its original use as a duplex where the larger side is the single family home and the other is a rental unit. Technically, as Pete points out, the original home was a triplex, although the second apartment could only be accessed through the first.
So is this new house now home for Pete and Linda Ibert? Linda Ibert shrugs and says, “When you move as much as we have to different places, no matter where you are, it’s your home.” For Pete Ibert, it is not as easy. “Home is the neighborhood," he says. “I grew up in this neighborhood.” Here he pauses, then continues, “I love this house. I think Pat did a great job.” He is emphatic in his praise. “But I don’t like it. But then I would never like it. There are no pictures here, no history here. It’s just an apartment we’ve moved into.”
“To the best of my knowledge,” he continued, “the family has left this house only once since 1901 – and that was Katrina. So I won’t do that again.” And for Hurricane Gustav, which hit Louisiana nearly three years to the day that Katrina hit, they did stay home.
At one point during the storm, Pete and Pat Ibert were planning to bring lunch to Pete Ibert's mother and to Linda Ibert, who was staying with her around the corner. Linda Ibert asked that they bring her a hot cup of coffee. “Let’s find out if the solar is really working,” she said. And it was. The Iberts drank hot coffee while everyone else was without power. “I cannot tell you how wonderful that hot cup of coffee was,” Linda Ibert said. Then she laughed. "When people ask about the time frame for payback from the solar, Pete says, 'The first time Linda needed coffee in the middle of a hurricane – it paid back!'"