Maurepas — La. 22 winds along the Amite River for a stretch in south Livingston Parish, where homes tower on stilts or rest on stacks of bricks or cinder blocks. A few small buildings and mobile homes sit in the soft earth, though many are storm-battered and abandoned.
At a bend — in the river and the road — lies Val’s Marina, a ground-level restaurant where the people of the rural community of Maurepas, population 3,600, more or less, can meet over beer or shrimp.
Yet, when Val’s announced on Facebook that it was closing, it got more than 600 responses. It’s a place the community goes to after church or high school ball games. Kids have birthday parties there, and one of the restaurant employees got engaged at a table in the back of the dining room.
But after years of dealing with hurricanes and floods, the family who has owned the restaurant since it opened in 1962 decided to sell their building and land to the government for 75 percent of the assessed value. The eatery will close sometime in January or early February. The building will be demolished, and the flood-prone land will be left undeveloped.
“It’s bittersweet, but it’s got to happen,” co-owner Brett Bell said. “It’s just gonna get worse.”
“(Hurricanes) Gustav and Ike kicked us down. … Isaac finished us off,” said co-owner Nicole Bell, Brett’s wife.
The Bells are selling their land through a Federal Emergency Management Agency program in which the agency is spending $2.8 million in Livingston Parish to buy or elevate properties consistently damaged by flooding.
Of the 21 properties in Livingston Parish getting the grant money, all but Val’s Marina are homes. Most owners aren’t selling their land but have elected to raise their buildings above flood level. Grant funding pays 75 percent of the cost, while the owners cover the rest. The Bells looked into raising their restaurant, but the building, completed in 1959, was not designed to be lifted.
The federal program has been in effect since the 1980s. Money for the recent projects was collected in response to Hurricane Ike. Fourteen other parishes received grants after the storm, though their specific payouts were not available by Thursday evening.
In Livingston Parish, about 1,000 properties were eligible for the program when the most recent funding became available, said Mark Harrell, director of the Livingston Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
To qualify, a property had to have sustained storm damage at least twice in the previous 10 years. Dozens of other qualified property owners in Livingston Parish have not been awarded their grants, said Harrell and Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Steele said projects are given priority for a number of factors, including cost-effectiveness.
“We have flooded homes everywhere,” Harrell said.
Properties in Walker, Denham Springs and Livingston have qualified, but most requests come from the southern end of the parish around Springfield and Maurepas.
As for the future of Val’s Marina, the owners are “going to take it one step at a time,” Brett Bell said.
Nicole Bell said they plan to put their tables, chairs and kitchen equipment into storage, as they consider whether to reopen elsewhere.
“We’re not saying yes; we’re not saying no,” her husband said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.