First responders will have a place to congregate and prepare in the event of another natural disaster in Livingston Parish like last year's flood, thanks to a dual-use community center that will be built in Walker.
The Parish Council voted Thursday night to hire an architectural firm to build a windproof gymnasium the parish's homeland security director said could house fire, law enforcement, medical and city utility personnel in case of another hurricane or catastrophic flood.
When there is no need to use the cinderblock structure as a safe space for first responders — which will be most of the time — it will serve as a community center, Parish Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Director Mark Harrell said.
He added that the facility might be set up with basketball and volleyball courts for use by Walker residents.
The $5 million project is funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program and the City of Walker, Harrell said. FEMA is expected to pay $3.75 million, while the city would pay $1.25 million.
He said the project — which has been in the works since before the August 2016 flood — fills a need the parish has for a safe and accessible location for first responders. In the past, he said, emergency personnel have been trapped in their homes due to down trees and high water.
The safe room will be built on the southeast corner of Sidney Hutchinson Park, due to its proximity half a mile from U.S. Highway 190, which is considered the most important thoroughfare during emergencies, Harrell said. Also, that location did not flood last summer, he said.
The building will have an enclosed power generator, Harrell said, and will meet federal requirements for high wind load. He said it could also be used as a shelter in the wake of a disaster, he said.
For the city of Walker, the project is viewed as an inexpensive way to get a community center for sports, family gatherings and local events, said Parish Council Chairman Tracy Girlinghouse, who is a former Walker city councilman.
"It's basically going to be like an event center for the community, where you can rent it pretty cheap and have a nice facility," Girlinghouse said. "And they got it for 25 cents on the dollar."
He added, "It's yours probably 990 days out of a thousand."
Jamie Etheridge, chief of operations for Walker, said the city first appropriated funds for the project in 2015 but halted the project before it began due to uncertainty after the catastrophic floods of 2016.
He said funding was re-approved in April.
Etheridge said the council's decision will allow the city to move forward with final designs and a construction timeline. He said the city has not decided yet what specific amenities will be inside the gymnasium-sized building.
The architect hired is Gasaway Gasaway Bankston, of Hammond. It had to be approved by the parish, because FEMA money is funneled through the parish, Harrell said.
Harrell said the parish has approval from FEMA to build a second safe room. He declined to say where it might be located, but said it would also be along Highway 190.