Ray Hines hopes his 77th birthday will be a time of celebration.
He spent his 76th birthday, on Aug. 19, gutting his Denham Springs home after 4½ feet of floodwater swept through and destroyed nearly everything he and his wife had collected in 41 years of marriage.
The Hineses and their two small dogs have been living in a camper – rented for $800 per month – parked in their front yard on Carolyn Avenue, while prying insurance money from their mortgage company and lining up contractors to repair the house.
They are two weeks and one order of cabinetry away from moving back in.
They are among the lucky ones.
Official estimates suggest only half of Denham Springs’ 10,000 residents are living on their property, six months after the Amite River reached record-breaking heights and overran the city and surrounding areas. Far fewer residents are actually back in their homes.
Some have made the difficult decision not to rebuild, including Councilman Chris Davis, a Denham Springs native who will resign from the City Council and move to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after the school year ends in May.
Wet weather has pushed back opening day for the last of Livingston Parish’s temporary school…
Three school campuses in and around the city remain shuttered for repairs and possible reconstruction. A few stores, restaurants and small businesses have permanently closed their doors, but most either have reopened or are diligently working toward it.
City government, too, was forced from its home on Government Drive, moving first to Old City Hall on Mattie Street and then to a converted bank building on Range Avenue. But with buoyant sales tax revenues and a resilient populace, Mayor Gerard Landry said he is optimistic the city will come back stronger than before.
“We still have what made us great: our people, our churches, our schools and our businesses,” Landry said. “We’re a little damp, but we’re still here.”
The eerie stillness of deserted after-dark streets following the flood has given way to a more modern hustle and bustle as residents and business owners work to rebuild the city. But many darkened windows remain.
More than 1,400 of the city’s buildings were initially declared substantially damaged following surveys by a team of Federal Emergency Management Agency workers. That number has dropped to about 600 — or roughly 15 percent of the city — after property owners appealed to the city, Building Official Rick Foster said.
The decision to elevate came early for Rick Foster.
Foster is among those whose repair costs would have exceeded 50 percent of their home value. He and a couple dozen other owners of substantially damaged houses will elevate their homes or move their living space to a second story to mitigate against future flooding – options Foster said he wishes more people had chosen.
Davis, the councilman, said neither raising nor razing and rebuilding his Oakwood Lane house, just south of Interstate 12, was economically feasible for his family. Instead, they will move to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where Davis took a job as a safety specialist at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in November.
“I had been talking to them about this job since late June and planned to just drive back and forth. It’s about the same distance commute as my last job,” Davis said. “But after the flood, substantial damage, not finding a new home in the city, my wife and I with our family decided this was probably the best thing for us.”
How many residents will make that same decision is unclear at this point.
A few weeks after the August flood, a Federal Emergency Management Agency engineer appeared …
While neighborhoods north of Florida Avenue have seen 65 percent or more of their residents return, the numbers are considerably lower in hard-hit areas like the southwest part of the city along Rushing Road, Foster said.
The streets there, between 4-H Club Road and Range Avenue just north of I-12, are lined with campers and temporary mobile homes. Many of the houses appear to be in some stage of repair, but more than a handful remain untouched and abandoned, with broken or boarded windows and doors. Some have been demolished down to the slabs. Piles of construction debris outnumber “For Sale” signs — but just barely.
Brian Langhart and Becky Holmes’s house on South Woodcrest Avenue has been gutted to the studs, but the repair work has been complicated by a post-flood inspection that found termite damage and faulty wiring in an addition built by a previous owner. The couple also discovered mold in the attic.
Rebuilding has been “a very slow process,” Holmes said, but they are making progress. In the meantime, they are living in a camper parked alongside their driveway.
Langhart said it’s like living in a shoe box, but they consider themselves relatively fortunate.
“At least we didn’t have to wait for a FEMA trailer,” Holmes said. “Most of our neighbors just got theirs in the last month or so.”
Foster estimated 220 FEMA trailers have been moved into the city, based on the number of temporary power poles installed. How many recreational vehicles are being used as primary residences is unknown; the city won’t begin requiring permits for them until May, he said.
Landry said he is encouraged by the numbers of FEMA trailers and campers he sees because they indicate people are staying in the city.
Other signs are less comforting.
At least 69 houses, and perhaps as many as 150, have been left untouched and abandoned to the mold and putrid decay that sometimes can be smelled from beyond the threshold, Foster said. Another 50 have been torn down and may or may not be rebuilt.
The vacancies are worrisome for residents who are anxious to see what will become of their neighborhoods in the long-run.
The constant movement of contractors, real estate agents, homeowners and others in and out of the city’s subdivisions also has masked more troubling activities: burglary and criminal damage to property, both of which in January were above their pre-flood monthly averages.
Drug-related offenses and DWI arrests also are on the rise, with the monthly averages for each since August outpacing the monthly average from January to July 2016.
Police Chief J. Shannon Womack said crime levels dropped the month after the flood but have risen since then as more people returned to the city. After a disaster, crime typically will spike before settling back into a normal range, he said.
The department has increased patrols, particularly in vulnerable areas, Womack said. The chief also stressed that residents need to lock their doors, secure their property and record serial numbers.
The city’s commercial corridors along Range and Florida avenues are reawakening, with additional stores and restaurants reopening each week.
A few businesses — including a Sears appliance center, a medical imaging center and a couple of fast-food chains — will not return, Foster said. But most of the city’s stores are working hard to come back.
Among the big box retailers still remodeling after the flood is Walmart, which had been slated for a full-store remodel later in 2017 anyway, Foster said. The upgrades were pushed up when the store had to close for flood repairs. The store is expected to reopen in late March or early April.
New stores and restaurants also continue to open around the Bass Pro Shops development on the south side of I-12.
“What’s open is booming,” Foster said.
Indeed, the Denham Springs Economic Development District, which includes Bass Pro Shops and certain surrounding retailers, posted a 13 percent year-over-year gain in sales tax revenue for December sales, according to figures provided by the Livingston Parish School Board’s Sales Tax Division. That’s up from a 35 percent year-over-year loss in August.
As car sales begin to taper after the August floods and reconstruction continues, Denham Spr…
Livingston Parish sales tax collections jumped dramatically in October, rising 50 percent ov…
The city of Denham Springs also has seen significant increases in year-over-year sales tax revenues each month since September — largely driven by construction supplies and car sales to replace flooded vehicles.
Car sales parishwide soared 250 percent to 350 percent above the same month last year in September through November, but dropped back to a 70 percent year-over-year increase in December, the most recent month for which figures were available. Those figures are expected to return to normal — and perhaps even regress — over the next few months, as residents finish buying replacement vehicles.
Meanwhile, Home Depot has posted three times the weekly sales receipts the store had before the flood, Foster said.
Smaller businesses were probably most affected by the flood, Landry said.
“Being one myself, I know how devastating a disaster like the flood can be,” the grocer-turned-mayor said. “If you had no insurance, I don’t know how you would overcome it.”
April Wehrs, executive director of the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce, said independent business owners have faced a variety of struggles, depending on their relative size, number of locations and whether they operated out of a traditional storefront or provided more portable, professional services.
“The recovery end of it has been just as diverse as the individual business owners themselves,” Wehrs said.
One of the biggest frustrations most faced was the Small Business Administration loan process, she said.
“We have people who are still waiting on financing from the SBA. Some are still waiting on a determination of whether they qualify,” she said. “For the independent business owner, the tightening of money is becoming critical for those who haven’t yet reopened.”
Wehrs said she has been impressed with the resiliency of the business community.
“They are tough as nails,” she said.
The city, which relies on sales tax revenues for 60 percent of its annual budget, scaled back on discretionary purchases for the year as a precautionary measure, Landry said. But revenues are up 8.5 percent overall for the fiscal year, and there is plenty of room for optimism, he said.
“In theory we could possibly see a decrease in sales tax revenue because people have already bought the replacement vehicles they might have bought six months from now, and they’ve already repainted their bedroom or redone their kitchen cabinets,” Landry said. “But we’ve also had a tremendous amount of growth, and that’s projected to continue and may actually offset any decrease.”
Every revenue boost now is a cushion against potential future outcomes, he said.
“Man, look, who’s got a crystal ball?” Landry said. “But we’re being vigilant, and we’re going to be OK. There are too many things going on in this city to think we won’t be back bigger and better.”
For residents, Hines said, there’s little choice but to keep moving forward, one step at a time.
“All a man can do is just go on and do the best he can,” Hines said.
Life must go on, Langhart said. And sometimes, that means taking a break from rebuilding to go hunting or, more recently, fishing on Lake Verret.
“I’m not going to completely stop my life over it,” Langhart said. “Flood took a house down, but it ain’t gonna take me down.”