DENHAM SPRINGS — Gayle Causey left her home 2 ½ years ago on an inflatable air mattress that neighbors floated across a flooded parking lot to rescue her and her two Shih Tzu dogs, China and Chippy.
But she never gave up on eventually making it back home, although her journey would prove long and difficult.
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She was plucked from the floating air mattress that day of the devastating August 2016 flood and taken in a white truck to a local church, which housed her for several nights. Then, she ended up at a municipal park where she slept outside on the concrete because the shelter would not allow pets.
Later, she moved into hotels and a senior living complex in North Carolina, before crashing in an upstairs bedroom with her daughter outside Austin.
At last, she's finally settled back into her old apartment.
"I feel like I've been around the world," said Causey, 68.
Causey and several of her neigbhors recently moved back into a renovated 45-unit, subsidized apartment complex for the elderly and disabled in Denham Springs. Before the flood, it was one of the few places for low-income seniors and disabled residents of Livingston Parish.
When the modest, brick buildings off Vincent Road were nearly destroyed with four feet of water, it sent Causey and dozens of others packing — to friends and family, one town over or several states away.
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Many of the residents of Livingston Manor live on social security or disability payments and had trouble finding places to go after the flood. Several were teetering on the edge and died or ended up in nursing homes, Causey said.
So, when residents got word that Livingston Manor was reopening last month, many rushed back to reclaim their homes. Those who returned were exuberant Friday as they described their feelings about coming home.
"I finally have my freedom," said Phyllis Kabel. "You don't know how wonderful that is."
Kabel, 73, said she spent the last couple years bouncing around between a sister in Jennings, a relative with dementia and an apartment complex in Hammond. On Friday morning, she was arranging Art Deco-style furniture in her new apartment. A full bar was already set up along a wall near the kitchen.
"It's way better than it was," Kabel said, pointing out the laminate floors that replaced old carpet. "I feel like I'm in one of the luxury apartments."
The process of rebuilding the apartment complex was long. The property was near to being completely destroyed by the flooding, so much so that then-HUD Secretary Julian Castro toured it in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
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The buildings operate under a contract with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide subsidized apartments for the elderly and disabled. Residents typically pay 30 percent of their income as rent.
After the flood, the Brockman family, owners of the property lacked sufficient cash to repair the apartments. They were underinsured for the extensive damage and had recently suffered severe losses at properties they own in Monroe, which flooded just five months earlier.
The firm appealed to the Louisiana Housing Corporation for a $1.4-million loan funded through HUD.
Reconstruction began in August 2018, and all apartments are now complete, said Alan Brockman, president of Sunquest Properties, which manages the complex.
He said nearly half the complex is filled with former residents who had a right to return.
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The repair process at Livingston Manor took so long that 63-year-old Tommy Mauldin thought it unlikely he'd ever return home. He settled in with friends in Alabama, because there were so few affordable places in Livingston Parish.
But his grandchildren live nearby, and he was excited to learn recently that he would be able to come back. He had spent three years on a waiting list just to get the apartment, and he likes the quiet community, where residents look after one another.
He's been back about three weeks, but the apartment remains sparse, just a bed, recliner and some cooking supplies. He's heard about a potential free couch, and he's looking to buy a kitchen table and chairs.
"I lost everything in the flood," he said. "I had to completely start over."