DENHAM SPRINGS — On one end of Capitol Street, a local developer believes a dilapidated shopping mall can bounce back if he transforms it into a trampoline park with a brightly colored marquee. At the other end, patrons pack Randazzo’s Italian Market for its daily lunch specials.

In between, a 1,000-foot-long block of houses and businesses offers many reminders of the flood that devastated this city two years ago.

"The neighborhood is so different, because half of the people are not here anymore," said Juliette McBride, 77, who lives across from Randazzo's. Her home flooded nearly to the top of the door frame, and when she moved back several months ago she found a good friend and neighbor had left and not returned.

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Heavy rainfall — more than 30 inches in some places — inundated the Amite and Comite watersheds in August 2016, triggering record flooding in Ascension, East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes.

Two years out, many rebuilt neighborhoods look as though there were no flood at all, and local governments have approved new subdivisions and thousands of homes for people who want to live in areas recently devastated.

There are other ways to measure the recovery, too.

The number of people remaining in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers has fallen from 4,400 to 423 in the three parishes. In Ascension Parish, only 14 percent of the 6,214 homes flooded still benefit from assessment reductions granted after the flood. Livingston Parish school enrollment nearly matches preflood levels. East Baton Rouge Parish gave about 40,000 households a break on their property taxes in 2016; only about 10 have applied for a reduced assessment this year.

But in some areas, like the triangle-shaped region bounded by Range Avenue, Florida Boulevard and Veterans Boulevard, recovery has come slowly, if at all. Blighted houses covered with a certain green film, and with their windows busted out, stand next to homes beautifully renovated. The pungent smell of mildew wafts when the wind is just right, or rather wrong.

“We’re going to have a totally new normal when it’s all said and done,” said Patti Peairs, living in the home her parents had purchased new. “I think it’s going to look like a lot of empty lots.”

Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry acknowledges recovery in the city of 10,000 has been mixed. Randazzo's, a family-owned restaurant, reopened within six months after the community raised $35,000 to help it. Flood victims without their own safety nets, and particularly those without flood insurance, struggle while awaiting federal help.

New beginnings are welcomed wherever they can be found.

The Denham Springs Sports Hall of Fame, for instance, flooded inside the city’s high school two years ago. After exhibit items sat in the principal’s house for a while, they moved last month to a new home at Big Mike’s Sports Bar and Grill. Landry says other changes are possible for Denham Springs — perhaps a lively and more walkable downtown, with parks and playgrounds. Maybe even the distressed triangle with the older homes could rebound if young people seeking a life without the hassles of Baton Rouge were to upgrade homes with modern wiring, plumbing and style.

“I’ve always talked about, we need to cherish our rich values and traditions, but we will change going forward,” Landry said.

An even more acute situation has taken hold along Hurricane Creek in North Baton Rouge. In an already depressed area, the overflowing waterway left behind a wake of abandoned houses and piles of debris.

“This was once a nice part of town,” Chris Andrews said as he drove down roads branching from North Foster Drive, Winbourne Avenue and Lanier Drive.

Andrews is the executive director of the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Baton Rouge, a group that organizes volunteers to help people still recovering from the flood. 

"If you don't have insurance, savings or resources, and you don't know how to navigate the system, then you end up being stuck, and people just walk away," said East Baton Rouge Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who represents this area.

One neighborhood resident, Juanmedik Brown, 60, who lives on Frey Street near Howell Park, is back in her home,  But the place remains a construction site. The roof is unfinished, the doors aren't sealed and the kitchen consists of one shelf of canned food. It’s not to the point where she can bring her brother, who is in a wheelchair, home from the nursing home. She has few options.

“I really didn’t have a choice in the matter,” Brown said.

Brown, who works nights as a psychiatric aid at East Louisiana Mental Health Services in Jackson, is low on money and big on problems. She received $20,000 early on from FEMA, but she spent a lot of that on releveling the foundation and on contractors whose repairs did not hold up, such as the electrician who wired her house in such a way that she can’t turn on her air conditioning and run her microwave at the same time.

A group of Mennonite bachelors from Rebuilding Together helped her install cabinets and flooring, but she’s stuck now waiting on Restore Louisiana. Brown said the program has asked her to buy more flood insurance on her home before they fund any more repairs, but she cannot afford the premiums that would be needed to protect the full value of her house.

“I guess I’ll have to borrow money again to come up with the $85,000 worth of flood insurance,” Brown said.

One of the most visible signs of continued recovery throughout the region is lingering FEMA trailers. The state has requested and received three extensions on the temporary housing program, and the agency has kept rent cheap for people with low incomes.

Patricia Massey lives in one of the 127 left in a FEMA trailer in Livingston Parish. She is waiting there until she can escape her mortgage and leave her flooded, condemned home forever.

Massey, who works for the Louisiana Workforce Commission, was no newcomer to flooding when she waded out of her Walker home two years ago. Her home had flooded in 2011 and again in 2012. Every night when it rained hard, she would be up late checking on a 2-foot flood wall that surrounding her house to make sure the pump was still going.

But the flood carried in 6 feet of water in 2016, and a parish official sent her a letter soon after saying the house was condemned and needed to be demolished or elevated.

Still, bare floors are littered with cardboard boxes and newspaper. The walls are still stripped down to the studs after a church group removed the drywall. The swimming pool her grandchildren once loved is green and filled with fish.

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Massey still owes money on her mortgage, and she can only receive help from Restore Louisiana if she decides to rebuild where she is. Massey said that once she resolves some issues with her lender, she'll dip into her savings and then try to sell the house for whatever someone is willing to pay.

"I may have to rent for a while, or I may never be able to afford a house again. But I’ll do something," Massey said.

Other people are hanging tight to their property, rebuilding in a way they believe will protect them from further disaster. Leaving, for many, just is not an option.

A.J. Clouatre Jr., 71, and his wife, Cindy, have no plans to leave their property in rural St. Amant that his ancestors settled generations ago and was the childhood home for him and his 10 brothers and sisters.

Living next to an Ascension Parish park named after his deceased brother, A.J. values the deep roots the Clouatres have in eastern Ascension, where few mispronounce the name with the silent “re” at the end — Clew-aht.

His parents’ house, in which A.J. and Cindy raised their family, their son’s home next door and many other Clouatre homes off this stretch of Stringer Bridge Road took lots of water in August 2016. A.J. and his wife had to demolish the family house, which took on more than 5 feet of water that didn’t leave for two weeks, but they are taking the time to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

More than a year into the construction of a new home, A.J. Clouatre still lives in a travel-trailer on his property while his wife lives with their daughter and son-in-law outside Gonzales.

“I ran into a guy a couple months back. We were talking about the flood and he said, ‘Well, that’s all over with now,’ ” Clouatre said. “I said, ‘Bruh, did you flood?’ He said, ‘No.’ Then don’t think it’s over with. I’m not back in my house yet. I’m living in a camper.”

Rising to the side of A.J.’s trailer is the future in waiting: a huge new house with the bottom floor 10 feet off the ground. From the new elevated back porch, Clouatre can look down on the space where his now demolished home once stood.

Clouatre worked for years around the world as an industrial construction manager. He has applied that experience to design a robust foundation for the three-bedroom, two-bath house, using steel I-beams, reinforced concrete piers and underground concrete pilings almost as deeply embedded in the St. Amant earth as the Clouatre name.

“One thing my dad taught us, he taught us to be self-sufficient and to do stuff right. ‘Do it right the first time, so you don’t have to do it over again,’ ” Clouatre said.

Down the road from the Clouatres, farther east, along Laurel Ridge Road in St. Amant, many homes are back to normal, or almost so. Houses in this area are just south of Ascension’s Laurel Ridge flood protection levee, which was overtopped in the 2016 flood and sent several feet of water into the neighborhood.

Freddie and Rose West have been home since February 2017 after their house took on 4 feet of water. Though flood insurance helped, their contents weren’t covered, and they had to take out a Small Business Administration loan to help along their gradual restoration.

“We lost everything in our house for 46 years,” Rose said.

On a recent steamy, weekday evening, the Wests were handling unfinished business. They were tearing down the old trailer where they first had raised their children and that later served as a place for storage after they built their current home next door in the late 1990s.

The flooded trailer had been mostly disassembled this day, ahead of an early September deadline from parish government to have it removed. The rusted metal roof lay on the ground in the West’s yard alongside the trailer’s wooden undercarriage. Piles of debris were waiting for a trip to the dump.

Rose West, 64, was on top of the undercarriage scraping off handblown insulation and putting it in trash bags, regretting her long-ago decision ever to add that stuff in the first place.

“Not thinking that some day if we tore it down, it would be a mess,” Rose West said.


Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.