BAYOU CORNE, Louisiana — After 2½ years in sinkhole limbo, life is busy and headed toward change for Bayou Corne homeowners Nick and Brenda Romero.
Nick Romero, 66, recently used a homemade pulley system to gingerly lower a scruffy, old-timey trunk to grandson Chase Baldwin.
Once it was on the garage's cement floor, Baldwin, 17, asked, "Paw Paw, how old is it?"
"I don't know. That's Ganny's," Romero responded, giving Brenda's grandmotherly nickname.
Whether cherished or forgotten, belongings the Romeros have gathered up over 24 years in their weekend camp-turned-home were being pulled out, boxed up and shipped northeast to Livingston Parish. Since late November, trailer load after trailer load had been towed behind Nick Romero's pickup.
A moving company was coming to help with big furniture and appliances. Nick Romero said he was shooting to be completely out by Jan. 21.
They were in the second wave of families accepting buyouts from Texas Brine Co. and its insurers to settle claims related to the sinkhole, which grew from 1 acre in early August 2012 to 31 acres in January after failure of a salt dome cavern operated by Texas Brine Co. LLC.
The Romeros' closing — buyout check in exchange for house keys — was scheduled Jan. 22. Within weeks, the last of those planning to leave are expected to have done so.
When the buyouts are finished, roughly a dozen of the original 150 families will still own land there.
The Romeros and other plaintiffs in a federal class-action lawsuit against Texas Brine reached a $48.1 million settlement in April. U.S. District Judge Jay C. Zainey ordered all property closings scheduled by Jan. 19 and completed "as soon as practicable." Plaintiffs' attorneys and Texas Brine officials said they want them finished by Jan. 30.
Attorneys said they hope to have separate mental anguish claim checks out by January's end, too.
Homeowners' attorney Larry Centola and Texas Brine officials said they could not disclose how much has been paid out in property buyouts or how much other settlements would be worth.
Sales records for 34 of the 38 closed buyouts, filed with the Assumption Parish clerk of court, add up to reflect just over $8 million in sales, or an average of $237,260 per property owner.
Buyouts ranged from about $40,500 to nearly $778,850; the property varied from mobile homes on small lots to large new homes on multiple lots, land records show.
The company expected to close on 36 of the 48 remaining properties by Jan. 22, according to a statement from spokesman Sonny Cranch. Each closing also ends $875 weekly evacuation assistance payments paid since fall 2012 at a total cost of nearly $11.8 million, Cranch said.
Both through the class action and earlier direct buyouts outside the court system, Texas Brine has bought out 104 property owners so far, according to figures provided by Cranch.
Martin "Marty" Triche, Assumption Parish Police Jury president, said he does not know what the future holds for the unoccupied houses and mobile homes.
Though Texas Brine hopes to turn the bought-out property into "green space," the company says it will not decide until after settlements are finished.
While a variety of litigation remains against Texas Brine, Occidental Chemical Corp., insurers and others, Texas Brine settled this fall with parish government and the Sheriff's Office for their sinkhole-related expenses.
The state has not settled, said Laura Gerdes Colligan, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Attorney General's Office.
Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, said the state has incurred about $16 million in sinkhole-related costs so far.
Texas Brine also is making progress in removing methane gas that local officials said required the parish evacuation order.
In the past year, the sinkhole also has been trending toward more stability.
Sediment has completely filled the failed cavern that scientists think breached deep underground and started sucking in surrounding sediment, creating the sinkhole.
However, muck and rock will continue to compress, possibly for many years, making room for more sediment, according to an Oct. 9 report from the state's special commission on the sinkhole. That could lead to further surface instability but probably not at former levels, experts say.
Micro-earthquakes pointing to breaking rock or salt began to pick up Dec. 22 and have continued for weeks, halting work on the sinkhole and causing cracks in an abandoned sinkhole containment levee, parish officials said.
Uncertainty also remains about the broader stability of the salt dome's western flank, from which the now damaged cavern was mined and surrounding caverns exist. The state panel ordered long-term monitoring.
While the Romero family was preparing to move out of their home in Bayou Corne, Pat and Jim Parks were getting ready to move into the new home they had built in Walker.
They closed Sept. 12 on a buyout that Pat Parks describes as fair.
The couple has been living in a cramped recreation vehicle since shortly before the sinkhole evacuation was ordered the evening of Aug. 3, 2012.
Contractors were making final touches as they showed off the 3,000-square-foot house.
Jim Parks, 80, will have an enclosed workshop for his woodworking.
Pat Parks, 70, marveled over her large closet.
The couple, who had been planning a move to Branson, Missouri, said they got the last lot on a large lake frequented by ducks after the price came down.
Jim Parks, an avid fisherman, said he would rather have stayed on the bayou he had visited since boyhood. But he's happy to still be on the water.
He said he plans to plant cypress trees along the lake to remind him of Bayou Corne and has a sapling from the bayou itself in a pot waiting for the day.
Nick Romero is leaving Bayou Corne with great reluctance. He was among the most vocal and persistent questioners of Texas Brine's response to the sinkhole and of the state's oversight of the company.
Part of their fight, he and others have said, was for straight answers and to save their homes.
As time has passed and others have left, though, a harsh reality has set in: A community is not a place, no matter how beautiful, but the people who live there.
"That's what makes a difference, losing all your friends," Nick Romero said.
Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com