Before it was a science experiment and an international volunteer hub, Gloria Perkins' home was the comfortable dwelling at the end of Wexford Drive in Baton Rouge.
Then last year it took on 29 inches of water.
"We were just kind of kicked out by nature," said Perkins' granddaughter Adrina White, a high school senior who frequently stays with her grandmother and calls the house her "quiet place."
Even when floodwater began to seep under the back door and Sandra Winfrey broke out the mop and towels, she didn’t really think her house was …
The building is under reconstruction now through a collaboration of nonprofit groups and state agencies. The LSU Agricultural Center is overseeing the construction and is taking the opportunity to install a variety of flood-proofing techniques. When it's finished, Perkins' house will be a prototype for floodplain construction.
"We've had to come up with some really creative solutions. … This is our experimentation phase," said extension associate Shandy Heil.
The techniques include raising electrical lines and the air conditioning condenser, replacing wood floors with ceramic tile and polished concrete, building the lower four feet of the walls with fiberboard, replacing low-level fiberglass insulation with closed-cell rigid foam board and elevating as many major appliances and cabinets as possible.
The goal, Heil said, is to build a house that can withstand floodwater and be hosed out with minimal demolition.
"There would never be enough (funding) to elevate all these houses. We're trying to give them adaptation resources," Heil said.
She hopes Perkins can move back home by Christmas. But before that happens, Heil will lead officials through the house to look over the strategies the builders have employed to limit flood damage.
She's hoping to present the designs to a national conference of floodplain managers next year. Texas authorities have asked about the Perkins house as they rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey, and even FEMA officials are starting to take notice, Heil said.
The builders hope the techniques, which they call "wet flood-proofing," will become the new standard for rebuilding houses that could be at risk of flooding.
"Helping people rebuild back to the way it was is not really helping. … What's the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results," said Nici English, a resource coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Health.
To protect lower- and middle-income families from floods, the federal government needs to flip the way it operates flood insurance, according …
Her agency helped by finding nonprofit organizations to volunteer their labor and by selecting Perkins as a candidate for the pilot program.
Project collaborators were eager to lend a hand to Perkins — the widow of a Purple Heart recipient who had to push back her retirement to account for flood expenses and who takes pride that she and a friend were able to gut her house. During a recent visit to the site, Perkins was ready to pitch in, offering to run to the hardware store for supplies.
Perkins didn't have flood insurance; she doesn't live in the high-risk zone where it's required. She got $19,000 from FEMA but sank a lot of that into fighting persistent mold.
A loan would have been burdensome for Perkins, a paraprofessional educator who moonlights as a certified nursing assistant. She thought about walking away from the house altogether but decided against it.
"This (flood) hit the middle class really hard. … She falls through the cracks," English said.
The budget for the rebuilding project was around $30,000, though much of the manpower and many materials were donated.
Heil hasn't yet determined what the final cost will be, or how the flood-proofing techniques will compare to a traditional rebuild. One expense she'll have to take into account is whether there's a higher cost of labor for the flood-proof strategies.
Volunteers with groups like All Hands and Hearts, which has set up operations in Denham Springs, are rebuilding the Perkins house.
All Hands and Hearts has completed 35 houses and is currently working to rebuild six more, said Program Director Aline Guidry. Originally from Brazil, Guidry was visiting family in Lafayette when the flood struck in August 2016.
People working on the Perkins house also hail from Canada, Mexico, Denmark, Russia, Belgium, Germany and across the United States. All Hands and Hearts is sponsored by travel companies like Southwest Airlines, which helps fly volunteers who want to work abroad.
Also lending a hand is lowernine.org, a New Orleans-based rebuilding nonprofit. It has an internship program that brings in French engineering and architecture students to help with rebuilding projects.
English said she's always looking for insured volunteer groups who want to work with the state. She encouraged such organizations to contact her at Nici.English@la.gov.
White, Perkins' granddaughter, is already seeing the fruits of all their labor to transform the gutted building back into a home, though work still remains.
"It looks a lot different. A couple months ago it was just so empty and broken. Right now it's just a little bit broken," she said.