A casual visitor who dropped into Denham Springs might never know that three-quarters of the city's structures flooded in August 2016.
The antique district is open, restaurant parking lots on Range Avenue are full of customers and a new salad place welcomes hungry lunch guests.
But anyone who takes a turn off the main drag will soon notice that many stages of recovery are still ongoing in the city.
On Carroll Street, a 19-house block near the city's high school that took on 4 feet of water, three people still have trailers in their yards and two houses have been gutted and abandoned. Only about half the block's residents are living full-time in their homes, according to one neighbor.
Hoping to gain an upper hand on creeping blight, the city of Denham Springs is surveying all of its 3,114 flooded structures and rating them from repaired to blighted.
Officials have surveyed 1,269 of the damaged structures so far — 41 percent of the total — with a focus on the worst flooded regions in the western part of town. The city has determined that 30 houses were never gutted after the flood and 79 more were gutted and abandoned.
“That’s a little bit higher of a number than I was prepared to see, but it’s still, when you do it percentage wise, it’s a lot lower than I would have expected,” said Rick Foster, city building official.
Abandoned homes are a problem, because they attract mold and pests, decrease surrounding property values and neighborhood quality and can encourage crime.
“It’s a reminder of a really rough time for the city, too. It doesn’t help the owner, it doesn’t help the community, it doesn’t help the neighborhood,” Foster said.
Foster said the largest portion of abandoned homes belong to older people lacking flood insurance whose homes have been paid for and landlords, who lack money to fix their investments.
The purpose of the survey — beyond gathering data — is to identify owners who have not rehabilitated their properties. The city is sending these people surveys to find out what they are planning to do with their homes and posting placards at the ones that are unsafe to live in. It's the first step towards condemnation, a process the city would prefer to avoid.
The survey is also a way for city building officials to interact with neighbors, learn where construction may be taking place that hasn't been permitted and inform people of their options, which could include elevation or a buyout.
Officials use a geographic information system-based tool developed for them by Denham Springs GIS firm Environmental Science Services. The app, which city officials have on their mobile devices, contains maps with dots for each city address. Officials use the tool to enter in a score and details about each structure.
The company has so far developed the mobile app for free as a good neighbor to the city, which originally planned to do the surveying on paper. But company officials are hoping the city will someday integrate the data into a multi-functional GIS system to include sewer systems and other public data.
Blighted houses are sprinkled throughout the city, but the biggest clusters are in some of the worst flooded and older neighborhoods.
One of the toughest cases is Mattie Street, a heavily wooded block that runs downhill from the antique district toward a creek that flows into the Amite River. The block is nearly abandoned.
One yellow house still sits smashed against the tree it floated into when 8 feet of water submerged the neighborhood. Across the street, the exterior walls of a brick paneled home are buckling. The house was never gutted, and the sheet rock walls are dotted with black mold. Building officials stapled a yellow sign to the door frame that says it is unfit for human habitation.
A neighborhood just south of Florida Boulevard where the streets are all named after trees, is doing just slightly better. While some construction is ongoing there, many houses are boarded up or torn down, with empty concrete slabs sitting as sad reminders of where others once stood.
Most of the flooded areas — like Carroll Street — are works in progress, with a couple of abandoned homes amid a block of others being repaired.
Data from the city indicates 20 percent of surveyed buildings are repaired to code. Another 41 percent have an active construction permit, but have not yet had a final inspection. An additional 4 percent of homes are gutted and have been put up for sale "as is."
Homeowners needed a permit for repairs if they got more than 18 inches of water.
Carroll is a residential block of small, colorful houses that runs from Range Avenue near Denham Springs High School to River Road. Before the flood, it was mostly occupied by adults and some retirees, who owned their homes, along with a couple of families.
There are two blighted houses. One has torn out walls, a wide open door and trash strewn across the weed-choked lawn. Neighbors said it was a rental before the flood, and they haven't seen anyone around the house in six months. The other, also gutted, was once inhabited by a woman who died after the floods, neighbors said. An orange-and-black cat calls it home now.
At least one house on the block is for sale and appears to have some new features, though the owner never pulled a permit, according to Foster.
That is a problem across the city — 16 percent of buildings surveyed had some or all repairs done with no permit issued, according to city data.
But around these lonely lots, most of the neighbors are putting their homes back together, believing the quiet block with good proximity to the school and downtown will hold its value.
"I don't think it'll deteriorate," said Lonnie Didier, 73, who has lived on the block for 13 years. "I don't think it'll go any further down."
Didier is back in his yellow bungalow with a screened-in porch. For seven months, he lived in a small trailer next to his house, washing clothes by hand and using his hose as a shower. He says the sun warmed the water in the hose, making it tolerable.
The retired social services administrator said church groups helped him at first to gut the house and purge the mold. Then, he was able to use his flood insurance money to hire a contractor to fix it up.
Next door, Darryl Allen is about to install new flooring in the home he inherited from his parents, which sits adjacent to his sibling's house just off the road.
The retired iron worker often seen in a Harley Davidson shirt was taken by surprise when the flood filled the family property, but he did have flood insurance.
Allen blinks hard when he talks about the flood and the repairs left to do.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening here at the beginning,” he said.
He's hoping to move back in from his FEMA trailer by Thanksgiving. FEMA is expected to start pulling those in February, and the city does not allow permanent trailers in neighborhoods with houses.
Across the street from Allen, AJ Mabry is in a brighter mood as he finishes moving from a FEMA trailer back into his renovated home.
Mabry, who once owned a cabinet shop, used the flood as an opportunity to raise the ceiling of his house and repurposed discarded wood as accent pieces in the kitchen.
A handy guy, Mabry is considering buying another house as an investment. That's an increasingly common move in Denham Springs, according to Foster, who said most of the permits being issued now are to investors and not original owners.
Though still "camping" in her house, Amber Dugas, owner of Taste of Louisiana Cafe in downtown Denham Springs said she feels lucky to live on the block where people are putting such effort back into their houses.
"Our street came back," she said.