Livingston Parish mayors respond to flood recovery efforts

Almost everywhere you look around Livingston Parish, you can spot flood debris, FEMA trailers, gutted houses or ongoing construction. The massive flood of August 2016, did not discriminate. It took out homes, businesses, schools and vehicles throughout the Parish. Now, at the six-month anniversary of the flood, area Mayors have started assessing the damages and the long-term rebuilding process. While many of them remain positive on the long-term outcome, many do not have many positive comments regarding assistance from FEMA.

Denham Springs
In Denham Springs, one of the most heavily hit areas, Mayor Gerard Landry reports that at least 77% of their buildings flooded, or an estimated 3,114 structures.
“The bottom line is FEMA was just way too slow to get available funds and assistance to our residents,” Landry said. “Some folks are just today receiving FEMA trailers. Then when you get one, it takes them another month or so to get utilities hooked up so you can move in. The entire organization needs to be restructured and revamped.”
The mayor said many businesses have already reopened and others will soon be ready.
“Everyone asks about Walmart,” he said. “Well, Walmart is scheduled to reopen around March 29, and it’s expected to be the second one in the country with a new, incredible format we are told. The resurfacing of Florida Boulevard is helping to bring businesses back, while attracting new ones.
“While the businesses are pushing back and re-opening more quickly, many residents are struggling because they didn’t have insurance and have gotten little help from FEMA,” Landry stated. “I spoke to a guy today and he said all his wives clothes are in the back of his truck and they are living in a camper, trying their best to rebuild. It breaks your heart. Who would have ever thought we would be facing something like this or of this magnitude?”
Meantime, the Denham Springs City Hall has been relocated to the old Capitol One building in the antiques district until it’s determined if the existing facility can be rebuilt. Three Denham Springs area schools are also facing the possibility of being completely gutted and having to be rebuilt – a task that the school board has addressed with the bond commission to assist with the necessary funding to rebuild.

Next door in Walker, newly elected Mayor Jimmy Watson has hit the ground running since sworn into office in January. Watson had previously served on the Livingston Parish School Board for 40 years while serving as the building official for the City Of Walker. He estimated that the City of Walker had 40-50 businesses that flooded with about 90% of those have already re-opened, and about 700 homes flooded.
“We only lost two to four businesses that may not be coming back. Two of those are already being replaced with new ones,” Watson said. “As far as our folks rebuilding their houses, probably about 30-40% are already back in their homes. It’s been more of a struggle for homeowners, but they are making it back.
“Sales taxes are up 30-40% and our utility income is not down as much as we had feared. So, overall, we are doing our best. Folks are resilient, and Walker will be back even better and stronger than before.”
Walker was the first to enter into a lawsuit against the Department of Transportation and Development or DOTD, citing the concrete barrier wall along the interstate from Denham Springs to Satsuma which they claim caused homes and businesses to flood that likely would not have. They say aerial shots prove that. It’s argued there are no drainage holes in the concrete barrier wall, and it held water on one side causing additional flooding. Denham Springs has also joined in on that lawsuit as well as the Livingston Parish School Board and the Livingston Parish Council.

French Settlement
In the nearby Village of French Settlement, Mayor Toni Guitrau said 60% of their homes and businesses flooded. She added that Northland Church went door to door to gather this information.
“We do not have a set number of residents who are back, but we see many folks are moving back daily and some have moved into mobile housing units,” Guitrau said . “The majority of our businesses are already back open even though they were really hit hard by flood water.”
They have no record yet of how many folks have permanently moved away, but will conduct another door to door check soon. The city hall took a hard hit and had to relocate from their 40-year-old building after getting more than 25 inches of water. They also lost two police units in the flood.
“We are operating out of St.Joseph Catholic Church Hall, along with our police department. We are just a strong community and we will do whatever is necessary to recover,” Guitrau said. “We were just so fortunate no lives were lost.”
They are waiting on FEMA to determine the outcome of their municipal building along with estimates on the cost to rebuild.
“I have just been amazed by the local churches that have helped us and helped feed thousands of people and the outside volunteer groups who came in and helped our people, along with the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office. We are forever thankful ,and we will never forget,” expressed Guitrau.

In Albany, Mayor Gene Glascock said 60-70% of his residents and business flooded, and that breaks down to about 400 homes and 10 businesses.
“Right now, most of our businesses are back open but our homeowners are dealing with FEMA, and it’s a slow rebuilding process for many,” Glascock stated .
Our main problem is folks didn’t have flood insurance. The town had major expenses prior to the flood, and when flood occurred, our reserve funds were depleted. We are trying to work with FEMA for solutions. Our cost share of ten percent that we will reportedly be responsible for will be a major expense for us.”
Glascock said they lost all of their records and files, and they are currently occupying a temporary location until their offices are repaired. “Water customers are our primary funding resource. Our water system covers a wide area that goes miles beyond the town limits. Lots of people who are not in their homes have turned off services which led to a substantial loss of revenue. We expect this flood to have a long-term impact. The town hall and police facilities were damaged beyond repair.”

Gary Talbot, parish councilman for the unincorporated area of Watson, said of that community, “I believe Watson has rebounded the best out of all areas in the parish. Most of our businesses here have already re-opened or they are very close to re-opening.”
Many Watson subdivisions flooded, like Paradise Lakes, some portions of Oak Hills, and many residents along Springfield and Cane Market Roads, just to name a few.
The new Live Oak High School in Watson took in water in the field house, cafeteria and Pro-Start kitchen, along with the ag building and T-shirt and printing shop. The high school and Live Oak Middle School were quickly but only temporarily repaired to accommodate a platoon schedule to accommodate Denham Springs High school students for about five months; they returned back to their campus in January.

Livingston Parish
Gary Talbot estimated that roughly 29,000-30,000 homes and businesses have been damaged parish-wide. He said countless folks are actually living in gutted homes while struggling to make repairs.
“I have been told the total impact in dollars to Livingston Parish including the school board, parish government, businesses and residential property damage is in the 1.25 billion dollar range,” Talbot related. “If sales tax revenue does not tank in the 3rd or 4th quarter of 2017, he suspects the finances of Livingston Parish should be sound.
“As far as the on-going lawsuit against DOTD, the main reason I supported the parish joining the lawsuit had to do with injunctive relief. It is impossible to design for what has never happened before. But to turn a blind eye to the pictures of the protective barrier holding back that water is asinine. I think the state needs to look at ways to prevent that from ever happening again.”

Editor’s note: While these reports were being gathered, the villages of Killian and Springfield, which were already recovering from the August floods, were dealt another blow. They are now trying to recover also from damage from high winds and a tornado which touched down Feb. 7, and their officials were not available for comment for this article. We will update them in a future issue..