“Dad, Dad, is it time to panic yet?”
Those were little Roland Michael Toups’ breathless first words after a towering oak tree came crashing through the family’s home during Hurricane Gustav.
The young boy’s father, Stevie Toups, counted aloud to five, noting that everyone was present and unharmed. “I remember saying, ‘No, that was two minutes ago,’ ” Stevie recalls. “It’s over. You can’t panic now—we’re all OK.”
The sense of composure and confidence projected by Stevie in that horrific moment would go on to carry the family through the stressful cleanup and rebuilding process that followed. Today, the house is a place filled with happy moments and frequent visitors, and new memories are built each day to replace the one frightful experience that changed everything.
The family had moved to this home in 2002, years after they had developed an attraction to its charming Jefferson Place neighborhood. The house itself didn’t initially inspire the same affection, but Stevie and his wife Valerie saw its potential. “It wasn’t sexy at all, but it had good bones,” Valerie says. “It was just this old ranch-style house that looked really, really well built. We knew we could do a lot with it.”
Minor aesthetic changes were first on the agenda, including new floors and updates to the kitchen. But with three young children running around, the couple decided to put off the bigger projects for a few years.
Then came Gustav. The hurricane blew into Baton Rouge with a fury on Labor Day 2008, and the renovations that had been postponed were soon to become a forced reality.
“The wind was whipping and rattling, and we heard something hit the house,” Stevie recalls. After finding a small hole made by a flying limb in a bedroom ceiling, he climbed to the attic to stop the dripping rainwater.
“Then we went back to the foyer and huddled together,” he says. “All of a sudden, we heard the tree fall. It was the most amazing compression. A 120-ton oak tree fell from the backyard all the way through to the front street and went straight through the house—straight through to the slab.”
Stevie and Valerie and their three children, Stephanie, Shelby and Roland Michael, were all safe. But the spot in the attic where Stevie had stood moments earlier had been crushed.
“I could have been planning funerals,” he says. “I was so lucky that we were safe. I was so lucky that we had so many neighbors and friends who helped us.”
Indeed, the traditional neighborhood setting that had initially attracted the family here proved a blessing in the days and weeks after the disaster, as neighbors lent their support in countless ways. Even with their help, however, the cleanup process was slow and arduous, considering that half of the house had been virtually destroyed. Stevie set up a “war room” in their newfound home-away-from-home condo, compiling invoices and assembling documents for insurance companies every night after he got home from work.
“It’s like running the biggest construction job of your life that involves your life,” Stevie says. “You don’t want this to be something that defines your family. … Every step along the way, we had to keep remembering that we were so blessed.”
The Toupses were insistent on rebuilding on the same slab, in the same footprint of their original home. Architect Lionel Bailey, who had been part of earlier projects at the house, re-created the blueprints and helped them find the best ways to use the space in the new incarnation. Dormer windows were added, then a fully finished upstairs den and a pantry under the stairs. Daughters Stephanie and Shelby’s bedrooms were pushed apart to make room for a small shared den. A wall was removed between the kitchen and living room, creating a great room that now serves as the hub of the home’s activity.
“Lionel knows his clients so well,” Stevie says. “He had a vision and an idea, and Valerie worked with him, and they were able to get this thing put together really, really quickly.”
Stevie’s sister, designer Suzie Adler, provided expert assistance with the layout of the new kitchen. “Her forte is space planning,” Valerie says. “She helped us figure out how to get lots of storage in the space. She found so many little nooks and crannies that we could use, and drawers—I love drawers.”
Throughout the house, Valerie and designers, including Anne McCanless and later Cole Baker, redecorated with an eye toward staying true to both the family’s and the home’s style.
“I know that I like clean and I don’t like fussy,” Valerie says. “I like traditional elements mixed in—I have pieces that were in my family or are old, and I love to mix those with the new.”
In keeping with that clean look, the home’s design incorporates “a lot of white,” Valerie admits, but she says, “It’s really easier to clean that way.” Upholstered pieces are slipcovered and bleachable, rugs are casual, and countertop and flooring surfaces were carefully chosen to stand up to abuse. “As much as I love pretty things, I want people to feel comfortable,” she says. “I don’t want them to have to walk on eggshells here.”
In less than a year and a half, the family was back home. “Santa Claus came to our own house that year, and it was great to be back,” says Stevie.
Valerie says she is still surprised when well-meaning acquaintances suggest that the disaster was actually a blessing in disguise because it allowed them to renovate the house to suit their lifestyle. “I’m not glad the tree fell on our house,” she says emphatically. “But I am glad it didn’t fall on us.”
“There was somebody else calling the shots, and we had to remember that,” Stevie adds. “The big man upstairs was watching out for us all along the way. He had a plan.”