GONZALES — Residents of a Gonzales street that has repeatedly flooded since its first houses were built in the mid-1980s — and which suffered the same fate in the August flood — may be eligible for a federal home buyout program that would transform the street back into a natural wetland.
Homeowners on East Silverleaf Street, which dead-ends into 53 acres of wetlands owned by the city of Gonzales, met one-on-one Wednesday and Thursday with interviewers from the Center of Planning Excellence of Baton Rouge, which is assisting the city with the proposed buyouts.
The Emergency Watershed Protection Program "is an emergency flood-plain program that would return the low-lying area (of Silverleaf Street) to natural wetlands, removing everything there," including structures, streets and pipes, said Gonzales City Engineer Jackie Baumann.
"The homes would be purchased by the federal government, with the buyout based on pre-(August) flood appraisal values," Baumann said of the program, which is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Headaches for the 43 homeowners in the one-street Silverleaf subdivision, which is near La. 30 in the southeastern part of the city, came to a head after the catastrophic August flood.
"It is not the optimal place to have a subdivision," said Baumann, who said she has been "searching through every possible funding source since August and have met many roadblocks."
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves was instrumental in guiding the city to the federal conservation program that's designed for areas that have repeated flooding and that are in a wetlands area, Baumann said.
"This was our way to try to come up with a creative way for the city to help homeowners," said a spokesperson with Graves' office. "The program is designed to take developed land and restore it back to its natural condition."
Gonzales Mayor Barney Arceneaux said the city and its flood-recovery consultant, All South Consulting, along with Graves' staff and the Center for Planning Excellence have been working together to bring the proposed buyout to Silverleaf homeowners.
The Emergency Watershed Protection Program, which was put into place after Superstorm Sandy devastated portions of the Northeast in 2012, requires that contiguous groups of houses participate, Baumann said
Not all of the homeowners have to take a buyout to make the project work, she said. If there are no other takers past an initial group of homes, the owners of those contiguous homes can still get buyouts, Baumann said.
However, the first house to participate "has to be touching the 53-acre wetlands" owned by the city at the end of the street, a requirement of the federal program, she said.
The decision to take a buyout, however, might be more complicated for some homeowners than others.
Silverleaf resident Tracy Babineaux said she and her husband bought their home at auction in April 2016. The home had been sitting empty for years, until the Babineauxs gutted and rebuilt it, she said.
Then, in August, the home they had painstakingly brought back to life flooded.
Babineaux said she and her husband, who moved to Louisiana last year from Idaho, have their home 75 percent back to normal, but the process has been exhausting.
"We had no experience" with floods, said Babineaux. She and her husband met a lot of their neighbors in August, as others helped them sandbag their home.
She's concerned her home's pre-flood appraisal value will be taken from the days before she and her husband bought it, when it had been sitting empty and neglected.
"If they could give us what we're asking, we'll do it; but if not, we're not going to be able" to take the buyout, Babineaux said.
Joe West has lived on Silverleaf for 29 years. He's the only one left, he said, of the people who bought the first 10 homes built on the street.
He and his wife live there with their daughter and two grandchildren — and his home on the north side of the street is one of two homes built right up against the wetlands.
West said he was told in his meeting at City Hall this week that the appraisal amounts will be available for homeowners in about two months.
"I'll have to see that first and see if it will work financially and enable me to move," said West, who retired in December last year.
West said he still has four more years on his mortgage that would need to be paid off with whatever he would get from a buyout.
At age 68, he said, he's not looking forward to taking on a 15- or 30-year mortgage.
"I'm not supposed to be worrying about where to live. I shouldn't have to be going through this at this time of my life," West said.
Before the August flood, he said, he had flood water come into his house high enough to ruin floors earlier in 2016 and also in 2015.
"Only three times water has gotten into my house — because I fought it, sandbagging and pumping," West said.
"Only for two or three years of the years I've lived here, I haven't had to sandbag," he said. "Sometimes, I'd have to sandbag twice in one year."