NEW ROADS — This holiday season could mark the last Christmas Lisha Gremillion calls Pecan Acres home.
For her, along with the 39 other families who make up the close-knit New Roads community, it's the best present she's ever received.
"I've already started packing!" she said with an enthusiastic smile while standing outside her family home on the corner of Pecan Drive West. She and her family have lived in the brick home for more than 40 years.
"I'm hoping to at least be out of here by March or April," she said.
Living in the predominately black, working-class New Roads subdivision often has been misery for Gremillion and her fellow neighbors. The neighborhood, which also includes Pecan Drive East, is dubbed "Flood City."
It got that name because since its construction in the early 1970s, the subdivision has been swamped by storm waters at least 17 times, causing residents to harbor an innate fear of rain — especially when Louisiana's frequent torrential downpours extend past 24 hours.
"After the second day of hard rain, you get nervous," said Laura Derogers, who lives down the street from Gremillion in a home with her elderly mother.
Living there has been a repeated cycle of loss and rebuilding. The outsides of many homes are stained with water lines from floods past.
"It's like the good Lord opened up the sky and just dumps all the water here," Gremillion said. "To constantly see all the work you've done to make a home get ruined — you feel hopeless, forgotten about."
But thanks to several federal and state programs, the residents of Pecan Acres are getting a chance at a fresh start on drier ground. All 40 households have been offered buyouts and have been given the option to relocate to another subdivision to be built for them in a different part of New Roads.
Pecan Acres was built around 1971 in a low-lying area that used to be a dumpsite in Pointe Coupee Parish. The subdivision is bordered by Bayou Pointe and Portage Canal, which can overtop the inadequate levee at the end of both Pecan Drives during intense rains.
Because of the neighborhood's bowl-shaped terrain, once storm waters go over the levee, they back up into homes and remain trapped in the subdivision for days.
Rebuilding after each flood became increasingly difficult over the years because many residents never qualified for FEMA aid, as they didn't get the flood insurance the federal government required of homeowners who got aid in the past. Most of the families who live in the community are on fixed incomes and they have said the flood insurance rates weren't affordable in their flood-prone area.
The residents did band together after flooding caused by Hurricane Gustav in 2008, accusing the Pointe Coupee Parish Police Jury in a class-action lawsuit of negligence because the drainage pump that could have pumped water out of the community in a nearby lift station malfunctioned. They were awarded part of a $2 million insurance settlement in 2012.
But their pleas to the parish for infrastructure improvements to stop the area from flooding never resulted in substantial changes. Some residents complained this made them distrust that any government would find a solution to their collective misfortune.
Then an unexpected ray of hope surfaced after the August 2016 flood, with residents re-galvanized like never before.
Their stories of constant loss and struggle won the attention of high-profile state environmental advocates, as well as U.S. Rep. Garrett Graves, R-Baton Rouge, and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
But the plight in Pecan Acres presented to local and state leaders a perplexing issue to fix since many of Pecan Acres' elderly residents were initially unwilling to pack up and leave the homes they worked hard to pay for just to start over in a community they didn't know. Many noted they once saw these homes purchased decades ago as their part of the American Dream, while some younger residents had inherited property from their parents or grandparents.
Others wanted to keep the close-knit relationships they formed with neighbors intact, so unless a solution involved building a new subdivision with homes comparable in value to what they already had, they weren't interested in hearing what officials had to say. They just wanted the parish to find the money to stop the flooding where they already lived.
But that started to change over the past year. Within a few months of the governor's August 2016 tour of the community, Pecan Acres residents were presented with a neighborhood buyout opportunity through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The NRCS program would buy out homes in Pecan Acres and restore the area to wetlands after the homes and infrastructure in the community are demolished and removed.
Shortly after the announcement of the buyout program, the Louisiana Office of Community Development revealed to residents there was funding available that could help them relocate and move into homes comparable to their current houses or build a new subdivision on undeveloped land outside a designated flood zone if enough of them wanted to remain neighbors after the NCRS buyouts.
The unexpected solution to all their problems came with one caveat: All 40 households that make up the subdivision had to agree to the buyouts.
There was a lot of doubt in the beginning that everyone would sign on for the deal.
What seemed impossible became plausible after residents began meeting on their own and convincing one another this opportunity was their one chance at finally getting relief, said Cletus Langlois, an engineer hired by the police jury who is in charge of the process.
"They had trust issues. They had been told things in the past that didn't come true," Langlois said.
Langlois said the parish was able to get "letters of intent" signed by all 40 households in the subdivision right before Thanksgiving. The week of Dec. 11, residents began submitting their applications for the NCRS buyout program.
Their homes are being appraised at their pre-flooding values. And attorneys with the Southern University Law Center have agreed to represent residents, pro bono, during the buyout process.
In the meantime, Langlois is working with state officials to scout locations for a new subdivision that would be built somewhere in New Roads for the residents who want to remain a community.
"Through the meetings we've had so far, we've learned about 25 to 28 households want to be relocated into a newly built subdivision," he said. "The other 15 to 12 either are going to take the money and buy a house somewhere else and some of the older ones are taking the money and have decided to move in with a family member."
Crystal Boudreaux, who lives on Pecan Drive West in a home her parents bought, has opted to take the buyout and move into the new subdivision with her four children.
"I would hate to be separated," she said. "There are mostly elderly people in our neighborhood and they help watch out for our children."
Boudreaux said the buyout and relocation finally give her a chance to establish a sense of normalcy for her children, who are so traumatized by all the flooding that they refuse to keep their clothes and personal belongings in dresser drawers and closets.
Her kids just keep everything stuffed in plastic bins to lessen their loss in case it floods again.
"I thank God every day we're getting out of this," she said.
No definitive timelines are set for the relocation effort yet. Langlois is estimating the entire process could take up to a year.
"We'll try and help it along as quick as we can," he said.
Today, nearly every household has a sign posted in their front yard that reads: "Opportunity only knocks once, so let's all say 'Yes!' "
Gremillion teared up at the thought of a new chapter for her and her family.
"I needed this peace of mind," she said. "We've lost so much here."