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 at risk.
News reports warned of flooding that Saturday as water crept up her street, then to her house, overflowing a backyard ditch, but a flood in Monticello was unthinkable. Her neighborhood isn't in a flood zone, she recalled.
Winfrey, 51, a respiratory therapist and married mother of two college-age children, made a roast for rice and gravy that day, washed her hair and prepared to ride out the rain on the couch catching up on TV.
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“I was like, ‘I’ve been here for 28 years; there’s no way water’s going to come in the house,’ ” Winfrey said recently.
Eventually it became apparent that, flood zone or not, the Winfreys’ house on West Wendover Drive was taking on water, rising eventually to 5 feet. Although she and her family escaped, they returned to a wrecked house and to three waterlogged vehicles they hadn't been able to move in time.
West Wendover is just one block in the 919-home Monticello neighborhood at the southeast corner of Greenwell Springs Road and North Sherwood Forest Drive, one collection of stories of shock, struggle and recovery from the August 2016 flood that affected an estimated 92,000 households statewide.
A year after the flood, the Winfreys and many of the residents of West Wendover are back. But the street doesn't look as it once did, and many people described a profound loss in their sense of security about the neighborhood. No longer could they believe their small piece of Baton Rouge would be spared this kind of natural disaster.
Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers remain in the front yards of four homes. A few new neighbors bought houses from people too discouraged to return, and a “for sale” sign sits in front of another. Some gutted houses look otherwise untouched and unoccupied. But more residents have returned than not and are closing in on or have completed their home restorations.
West Wendover Drive is just one block in the city of Baton Rouge out of the estimated 92,000…
All but a few have had to do so without help from flood insurance, cobbling together their own resources, the equity of do-it-yourself efforts, aid from FEMA and, in some cases, U.S. Small Business Administration loans, residents said. Some are waiting on additional grants from the state's Restore Louisiana program, but most, because of their generally solid financial circumstances before the flood, are at the lowest rungs of priority.
Despite 4 feet to nearly 6 feet of water and FEMA’s initial determination that five homes at the end of the block were substantially damaged and in need of demolition or elevation, the city-parish has found otherwise. No home on West Wendover has been elevated or demolished, and all seem on the path to reuse as they were.
Still, after the shock of seeing so much water on their street and in their homes last August, many residents described contradictory impulses on their return. They had a strong desire to get back home, but many expressed wariness about the possibility that their street will flood again one day.
Kathy Huffstutter, 60, said she isn't so sure she could return after another flood. She had to be rescued last summer with her tabby cat and her French bulldog by two men in a boat.
In August 2016, historic floods devastated parts of south Louisiana after a slow-moving syst…
After spending a week with her boss, she lived with the family of one of her children in Walker and returned home in mid-May. By mid-June, she was almost done, waiting on some kitchen cabinets and other details.
“Oh, it’s going to happen again. I have no doubt it’s going to happen again. I’m hoping it doesn’t happen again in my lifetime, and I have honestly told people that if it happens again, I’m not sure I would go through what I had to go through to get back,” said Huffstutter, who has lived in Monticello since 1987 and got 4½ feet of water in August.
'It rained like hell in Monticello'
Built in several phases between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, Monticello is a solidly middle-class neighborhood in East Baton Rouge Parish’s midsection. Nearly 91 percent of subdivision households owned their homes in 2015, 32 percentage points higher than the parishwide figure, census estimates say.
Marge Mackey, a longtime real estate agent and broker in Baton Rouge who has sold and resold homes in Monticello, said the neighborhood started out when plants on the Mississippi River were booming in the ’70s and looking for workers.
Development was moving toward the Amite River, but builders were still looking for what was seen then as higher ground. While Sherwood Forest and Broadmoor were a bit pricier and marketed to the engineers and managers for Baton Rouge’s industrial base, Park Forest and Monticello were aimed at blue-collar workers and provided an easier, northern route to plants on the river than neighborhoods south of Florida Boulevard.
“The city had to grow to the east. It just filled up all the high land," she said. "They knew where the flood plain was back then. We were well aware of it."
The U.S. Geological Survey has determined the August flood brought waters that approached a 500-year flood, or one that has a 0.2 percent chance of happening in any year. That’s a flood with an estimated water height that will flood areas deemed low risk, where FEMA does not require flood insurance.
Though just south of where Hurricane Creek meets the Comite River and its large floodway, Monticello sits on relatively higher ground. Even today, flood insurance rate maps show a large majority of the neighborhood is above the 100-year flood plain, where insurance is required for those with mortgages, and even above the 500-year flood plain.
State Climatologist Barry Keim said Monticello was caught under one of the most intense bands of rain inside the August storm, dropping at least 24 inches of rain over two days. The area stretched across a swath of East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes from just east of the Metro Airport in Brownfields to Watson. Monticello had the fourth-highest rainfall total from the August storm.
“I mean, it rained like hell in Monticello. That’s the bottom line,” Keim said.
All that rain created what Keim called a "glut" of water that local waterways couldn't handle.
Bob Jacobsen, a consulting engineer for the Amite River Basin Commission, has estimated water levels in the Monticello area reached 3 to 5 feet above the estimated height of a 100-year flood.
In the year since the flood, plenty of debate has emerged about the merits of the National Flood Insurance Program, how it communicates risk to the public and how it spurs market recognition of that risk. A 100-year flood has a 1-in-4 chance of happening over the life of a 30-year home mortgage, the USGS says. A 500-year event, which the USGS found represents the upper limit of flooding last August,
still has a 6 percent chance of happening over the same 30-year period.
For Judith Webb, who owned two homes in the Monticello neighborhood, debates about inside or outside the flood plain — and whether or not a property had flood insurance — remain abstract. Her home on West Wendover, which was outside the high-risk area, didn't have insurance. A nearby house on Mendenhal Drive, where her two adult grandchildren had been living, did have flood insurance because it was required after a revision of FEMA maps in the late 2000s.
Photos: Shocking aerials, other 2016 flood images show so much water where no water should be
We've seen flooding, but not like this. Water was deeper than its ever been and in places that it was never supposed to reach. In some cases, only a view from above could make us appreciate just how massive this flood really was.
But Webb, a 61-year-old Rite Aid manager, hasn't been able to get back into either house. The insurance for the Mendenhal home hasn’t done her much good yet. Her mortgage company is holding her $80,000 check over a paperwork dispute involving her contractor, she said.
On her uninsured West Wendover house, Webb got $33,000 from FEMA and some time off and assistance from Rite Aid. Her son also gutted her home for her with help from some of his co-workers at Turner Industries.
But Webb has run out of money to finish a house that has new wallboard, paint, flooring, molding and other improvements made but that still needs a completed kitchen, cabinets and other finishes. She said she applied for Restore Louisiana grant funds and is waiting to hear what she might qualify to receive.
After about a month of staying with her father in north Baton Rouge, Webb moved in September to a FEMA mobile home on West Wendover with her grandchildren and has seen her neighborhood slowly come back. She has watched as her street changed from a “ghost town” to one where many of her neighbors have returned.
She said she and her grandchildren are getting along fairly well in the tight quarters.
“It’s like home. I appreciate it,” she said, adding wryly that she and her grandchildren have bedrooms on opposite ends of the trailer home. “And I shut my door,” she said with a laugh.
Of all the West Wendover residents who agreed to interviews over the past two months, none had insurance if they lived in the low-risk flood area. At the end of the block, four properties are at least partially in the high-risk area. The owners of three of those homes said they did have insurance. The fourth declined an interview.
Statewide, nearly two-thirds of the almost 58,000 homeowners classified as having the heaviest damage in the March and August floods — "major" and "severe" — were without flood insurance, state officials said.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, just 1 in 8 homeowners had flood insurance about the time of the August flood and an even smaller portion likely had it in low-risk flood areas like much of Monticello, state insurance data and FEMA reports say.
Ups and downs
Several residents said they've had difficulties with contractors who have taken money and not done promised work, a problem across the Baton Rouge area over the past year.
“We’ve just been ripped off,” said Gene Smith in June.
At the time, Smith said he hadn’t heard from his contractor in two months, right after the contractor took $5,000 — the amount he needs to finish installing kitchen cabinets and appliances. A month later, his kitchen still wasn’t finished, and last he heard, his contractor was in Europe. Smith has since mostly finished his home.
Down the block, Thelma Carter said her husband was looking forward to retiring from his job as a salesman for Utz. He’ll have to work a little longer now. The $4,000 they said their contractor took off with is only a portion of the total cost of their repairs, but it does twist the knife.
Before the contractor, the first repairs were done through the state’s Shelter at Home initiative to help people get back quickly into partially finished homes, and months later, Carter still had the spartan sink they installed.
One persistent demoralizing factor for families during recovery was the quality of food stored in Shelter at Home mini-fridges and cooked in microwaves and on hot plates.
But things are getting better.
In early June, Jackie and Keylonda Wheeler finished their kitchen and reveled in their first real home-cooked meal in their real home since the flood. It had taken a toll on them. Keylonda Wheeler recalled filling out the application for disaster food stamps, which has a line to fill out an address. But the Wheelers weren’t staying at their house at the moment. "So you’re homeless?" an attendant asked.
“I have a house; it’s just messed up!” Keylonda Wheeler recalled thinking as she teared up.
While several residents on West Wendover shared in tough experiences with contractors and federal programs, others credited FEMA with helping them return home. Ethel Germany lived in a FEMA mobile home for seven months and used the agency's aid to rebuild her house.
“I had a very positive experience with FEMA,” Germany said.
Like so much of Baton Rouge, they also saw goodwill from everyday people: the unofficial battalion of volunteers in the Cajun Navy who rescued them; friends and family who opened their doors and helped them rebuild; the churches and nonprofits that donated everything from furniture to diapers.
“It’s one of those things you can’t even begin to do yourself,” Jackie Wheeler said.
Lisa Lee, who lives with her two college-aged children, and her mother both live in the Monticello neighborhood. Both flooded.
Lee's family came to Baton Rouge from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Lee, who got 8½ feet of water in her New Orleans home in Gentilly, had flood insurance for years in Baton Rouge. Her agent and neighbors always wondered why she’d ever want it, and she canceled it only months before the flood struck.
"That's why I'm like, 'No, it can't be happening again,' ” said Lee, a bank manager. “ 'It cannot.' ”
Lee, 51, had to rebuild with a $20,000 FEMA grant and personal funds. Despite the hardship, Lee has received goodwill from her family and returned it to others. After the flood, they all went to stay with her brother, who also has a house nearby.
“He just opened his home to us,” Lee remembered.
Lee also has been working with her church, New Gideon Baptist, to deliver aid to flood victims.
“We are a Christian people, and we’ve helped a lot,” she said.
But some on West Wendover also had to incur significant debt. Smith, whose family was able to leave a FEMA mobile home in July after more than seven months, said he got $20,000 from FEMA but also had to take out a 30-year, $90,000 SBA loan to renovate his now mostly finished home.
Smith, 56, also is seeking Restore Louisiana money but figures he won't be able to retire any time soon with all that debt and said he doubts he would take the same path if he had to do it again.
The emotional effects of last August have yet to fully fade. Lee and many of her neighbors said they worry they could see another flood on West Wendover.
Earlier this summer, sandbags stacked in front of doors for Tropical Storm Cindy remained in place after the storm passed. When Cindy blew through, Sandra Winfrey, who said she never thought she could flood, wasn't thinking about cooking a roast or watching TV this time. She set an alarm to go off every two hours so she could monitor conditions.
"I'm terrified, to be truthful about it," she said, laughing at her new state of mind. “Every time it rains, I’m like, and don’t even let them say a ‘flash flood watch,’ I’m like, ’Oh, my God.’ ”
Although Baton Rouge real estate agent Lynda Butler said long-term uncertainty remains, in general, for the future of Monticello, she said price data for renovated houses appear to show values have held up so far at about $90 to $110 per square foot, about the same for houses that didn't flood.
Butler said it may be another year, after the traditional fall slowdown in sales, before a clear picture emerges for Monticello and other heavily flooded neighborhoods. She said many flooded properties have yet to hit the market in either renovated or gutted status, but the 1983 flood showed damaged homes renovated correctly that also were not “repeat flooders” remained attractive.
“If you do it and do it right, it will sell,” Butler said.
Kori and Adam Alexander are among those who have taken a chance on Monticello. In June, they bought a flooded and renovated house on West Wendover.
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During a visit in late June, the Alexanders’ house had many of the hallmarks of a couple still in the early years of marriage and settling into their first home.
Stenciled on the living room wall was a collage of words meant to describe their coming life together: Among them, “family,” “romance,” “faith” and “devotion.” Elsewhere, branches stenciled on another wall marked a growing family tree. Outside, by the front door, brightly colored mulch not yet faded by time surrounded small shrubs still with tags from the nursery attached to them.
The Alexanders, who have an 11-month-old, had been leasing an apartment down Sherwood Forest Boulevard from Monticello when the flood hit and soon after considered buying a gutted house.
“We felt like that if any time was the time to get a house, now would be the time, when people are starting to remodel houses, when people are selling them for cheaper, we probably can get them at a better rate. It just made more sense,” said Kori Alexander, a 27-year-old stay-at-home mom.
But on a visit to West Wendover in April with a real estate agent, as contractors and residents were busy redoing other homes on the street, Kori Alexander said she saw the potential in the then-gutted house in the middle of the block: a good floor plan and a yard.
Real estate agent Jeremy Henderson, who has bought a few gutted homes in Monticello and flipped them, rebuilt the Alexanders’ home. He remains bullish on the neighborhood where he has family.
“I feel like the homeowners are coming back. They are coming back,” he said.
Kori Alexander, who said she hopes to live on West Wendover at least 10 years, said she thinks there are still solid chances her street could flood again. Heavy rains worry her, she said. Her husband, Adam Alexander, a 24-year-old deckhand on the Mississippi River, said he sees a much smaller risk and views the August flood as a freak event.
Still, the Alexanders have hedged their bets. They weren’t required to get flood insurance for their home loan, but Adam Alexander said he pushed for it. The agent, who didn’t know Baton Rouge had flooded, tried to talk him out of buying flood insurance because their new house is not in a high-risk flood zone.
“He was like, ‘Man, you don’t need this,’ ” Adam Alexander said. “And, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, like, ‘No, the whole city flooded.’”