DENHAM SPRINGS — Opening a U.S. Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program at any school would be an achievement. There are just 235 in the country at any given time, and offering such a program is considered an honor.
But the dedication ceremony for a new program at Denham Springs High School took on special meaning Tuesday afternoon because it will be housed in a building that was remodeled and expanded after it took on more than a foot of water during the August 2016 flood.
“Since (the flood), we’ve been in survival mode,” School Board Member Buddy Mincey said at the dedication ceremony. “We’re thankful to be here moving forward.”
The Livingston Parish School Board announced Tuesday that it has finished repairs at 16 of the 19 schools damaged during the catastrophic flooding just in time for the new school year.
It’s an achievement officials are celebrating, because it involved $55 million in work to replace hundreds of classroom floors, walls, electrical systems, furniture and computers.
"It's phenomenal to think about the amount of work that has been done in such a short period of time," Livingston Parish School Superintendent Rick Wentzel said in a news release Tuesday.
School officials were able to re-open 16 of those schools within months of the disaster. They have been performing repairs mostly during summer and holiday breaks.
"It took everyone working together, being patient and supportive of one another, and, quite frankly, just refusing to be brought down by tragedy," Wentzel said.
Students are out of school for the summer, making it the perfect time to complete an array of school construction products across Livingston Parish.
Assistant Schools Superintendent Joe Murphy said the flood has in certain cases allowed the school system to update facilities, such as the new JROTC center and a library at Denham Springs High School. The library features new couches and tables that can be rolled around for studying.
“As horrible as it sounds, the flood gave us an opportunity to do something new,” Murphy said.
Plans were in the works since before the flood to bring a JROTC program to Denham Springs High School. With the help of U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, the school system secured a visit with U.S. Marine Corps officials.
That visit was scheduled for 11 days after the August flood, when every building on the campus was gutted and fans were running to dry out the buildings.
“We did a good job of showing our vision and our passion for this,” Mincey said.
Graves presented a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol to the nascent group as part of the dedication ceremony.
“This is another indication of how strong and how great Denham Springs is, how strong and how great Livingston Parish is, and how strong and how great south Louisiana is,” Graves said.
The group started meeting this spring and has attracted 170 students so far, said Senior Instructor Lt. Col. Ronald Bias. He said the military program teaches character and leadership.
Walker High School also has a U.S. Marine Corps JROTC program.
Murphy, who has overseen much of the school reconstruction, said he is close to an agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency about how to rebuild the final three schools — Denham Springs Elementary, Southside Elementary and Southside Junior High. Students at those schools are still learning in temporary campuses.
The school district anticipates the total cost of repairs at $100 million. FEMA has reimbursed $24.8 million, and another $18 million has been pledged to the school district, according to the news release from the school system. The school system had self-insured its buildings and was not insured through the National Flood Insurance Program.