A deeper look into the community 6 months after the flood

The Business Journal recently reached out to the local communities affected by the unprecedented flooding in August for an update on how the cities are recovering. Mayors and chamber directors offered insight into revenues, residential and business recovery, and a general outlook for the future of Baker, Central, St. Francisville and Zachary.

Mayor Darnell Waites had been elected to lead the City of Baker only four months before the rain began to fall on August 12. He said, “I was a brand new mayor with a new administration, and we were in the middle of an audit.”
Waites is thankful for area leaders, such as Mayor David Amrhein of Zachary, Mayor Jr. Shelton of Central, and Baton Rouge Councilwoman Chauna Banks-Daniel, who offered guidance and resources during and after the event.
Along Groom Road, which has areas zoned residential and commercial, 35 businesses were lost, including a $3.4 million fire station.
“We still have firemen sleeping in trailers,” he continued. “A veterinarian who had been in the community for over 30 years lost both his business and his home and probably will not reopen. Several barbershops and salons have had no movement.”
The hit to Groom Road was especially impactful because the city was looking to expand commerce along the corridor. Despite the setback, “revenues are up, and businesses are still coming in,” said Waites. Roses Express, which had announced its location in Baker in July, has already opened. Waffle House is still coming to the city, and another business has reached out about a potential housing development.
LaTania Anderson, Executive Director of the Baker Chamber of Commerce added, “[The Chamber is] working with the businesses that sustained flood damage as they return by assessing their needs and connecting them with state and federal resources that will aid them in their road to recovery. At the same time, we will be working with those businesses that weren’t damaged during the flood to educate them on disaster preparedness.”
Waites said the school superintendent has reported an increase in school enrollment and residents are coming back slowly. He also stated some of the people coming in to repair houses are not the people who owned them when they flooded. Some owners just sold and walked away. The city is making an effort in council meetings to keep communication flowing to the residents.
One of the biggest issues the city currently faces is reconstruction debris removal. The administration is pushing back against FEMA’s refusal to help pay to get the debris to the dumps. Waites is also concerned about FEMA’s 18-month limit on temporary housing. The clock started ticking in August, and the FEMA trailers will be picked up in June 2018; however, some flood victims had to wait months to get a trailer.
“We don’t quit, and we don’t whine,” said Waites. “We’re still working on economic development and trying to reshape how people see Baker. We’re building on the resiliency of the people, not just in Baker, but in Louisiana.”

“We recognize the fact that we are in a marathon, not a sprint,” said Mayor “Junior” Shelton of Central. “Recovery efforts started well, but we still have a long way to go.”
Central has observed recovery happening in waves. First, there were groups of people who were able to start demo and reconstruction right away. Some people, however, are only now beginning their repairs. There is still another group of residents who have not even begun.
“We believe we’re going to minimize loss. We’re working with citizens to make sure values assigned are accurate.” Shelton said.
City officials began to realize that FEMA’s method of measurement in valuation was flawed. FEMA was measuring the outside of a home, finding a watermark that looked accurate, then assigning a square footage of damage that did not take into account items like air conditioning, wiring, etc.
“When we had our building officials go in, they would find discrepancies. We have to be able to justify and document our arguments. A lot of folks have not had their homes assessed, so we’re going door to door and asking residents to contact city officials.”
Shelton said business development in the city is ongoing. Very few businesses had damage since their main business district was not flooded like Denham Springs.
“We’ve seen an increase in sales tax revenue, which we attribute to Livingston Parish residents coming to Central to shop and eat.”
Ron Erickson, President of the Central Chamber of Commerce, added that several home-based businesses are still working to get back on their feet. “Not only did they lose their home, they also lost their base of business operations, he said. “Additionally, due to the displacement of the population, these businesses have lost some of their normal customer base. Sadly, for some of these businesses as well as some of our retail businesses, the flood has marked the end.”
The mayor noted that three restaurants were lost. Mike Anderson’s appears ready for business but is up for sale. American Farmhouse was recovering and set to reopen until its owners were tragically killed [as the result of an accident]. Shelton said there may be a new tenant going in. Our Place on Hooper was one of the oldest businesses in Central, and will likely not reopen.
“The thing that no one thinks about is how this has affected people emotionally,” said Shelton. “The flooding had a profound effect on our children. Kids get antsy now when it starts raining; people get edgy.” The city recognizes the unease and is committed to a well-planned maintenance and drainage program. “It will be costly and time-consuming, but necessary.”

St. Francisville
Though St. Francisville received very little flooding, Mayor Billy D’Aquilla said about 100 houses in the parish flooded. Most of those people are back in their homes. The city, however, played an integral support role for the neighboring cities that did not fare as well. As homes began flooding in surrounding areas, St. Francisville hotels opened their doors for those displaced. Churches and other organizations came together to cook and deliver meals to flood victims in Baker, Zachary, and Central as they began gutting their houses the following week. They prayed with victims and met as many needs as they could. “We went all out to help,” said D’Aquilla. “St. Francisville is just a caring community. Our thoughts are with those still recovering, and we’re praying for them.”

Mayor David Amrhein reported that sales tax in the last six months has increased roughly $500,000, and while “that may seem like a large number, the City of Zachary has expended over $600.000 in removal of flood debris and associated costs incurred by the city. We are hopeful of receiving around $500,000 back from FEMA to offset the expenses.”
Thirty-five businesses had water, but all are up and running except one. There are three new businesses that were under construction that did not incur flood damage and are still on track. Comfort Inn has already opened next to the Zachary Youth Park, and Americana will soon see Bistro Byronz and Walk-Ons open for business. Captain D’s will begin breaking ground soon between Sonic and AutoZone.”
Zachary Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kate MacArthur said many businesses are looking to locate in Zachary. “We had more inquiries in December than any other month, mostly retail.”
The City just announced two more businesses coming to Americana with construction set to begin in the fall: Kidz Karousel Early Childhood Development Center and Cheauxnaniganz Family Entertainment Center. MacArthur also said they anticipate at least three more businesses coming to the city by the end of the year.
Amrhein’s outlook for the city is positive. “While we had over 500 homes take water, we are seeing the majority of them back in their homes, or making significant strides to that effect. The city will continue to grow and prosper as we move forward from the devastating floods in August,” he stated.”Baker’s mayor said it best when he remarked that the northern part of the parish has become a powerhouse because all four communities are working together instead of competing against each other. We survived [the flooding] because of our differences; we all have something to offer to our area. The lion is about to roar in this parish.”