In the summer of 2016, Sylvia Williams joined neighbors in circling Gov. John Bel Edwards, pleading for help from the massive floods that hit the Baton Rouge region. As with so many others, her New Roads house wasn't spared by the destructive deluge, but it wasn’t even close to the first time the Pecan Acres neighborhood has dealt with flooding.

In fact, it was one of 17 times the community has flooded in the past 30 years, an unfortunate reality that earned the subdivision the nickname Flood City among residents.

As Williams and others grouped near the governor more than four years ago in the pouring rain, Edwards vowed to fix the problem.

“He kept his promise,” said Williams, 51, who recalled the years of bitter fights with insurance companies and the nervousness she felt any time it rained. “It’s a lot of flooding and a lot of losses.”

Now more than four years later, numerous governmental hoops, planning and efforts to bridge residents’ skepticism, the project to move the community to higher ground neared the home stretch Tuesday.

Edwards, joined by dozens of residents and state and federal leaders, broke ground on the construction of houses that by next year will be home to some 40 homeowners now living about 2 miles down the road in the Pecan Acres subdivision.

"I will never forget how passionate you all were about the plight that you had been through, and you told me how important it was to find some permanent solution," Edwards told them Tuesday while recalling the August 2016 evening he visited their neighborhood. “I'm as relieved as anybody to be here today talking about you moving into new homes.”

Unlike other projects that let the government buy flood-prone homes so the residents can relocate, the project in Pointe Coupee Parish aims to preserve the tight-knit community by moving them all to the same place.

Nearly every resident in Pecan Acres opted to move to the new location, and they even played a role in designing everything from the style of the houses and aesthetics of the neighborhood to its name: Audubon Estates.

If all goes to plan, some residents could begin moving into their new homes as early as next summer. And along with the plot of land sitting above flood level, the houses will be raised an extra 3 feet, just in case.

Many of the residents are low- to moderate-income and moved to Pecan Acres after previously living on nearby sharecropping land. The opportunity for homeownership was enticing for buyers, but they soon realized they would be left with houses they could neither sell nor build equity on.

“They were following the American dream by home buying, and they got stuck,” said Pointe Coupee Parish Council member Edward “Pop” Bazile, whose district covers Pecan Acres and the new neighborhood.

Still, building trust with residents has been a long process. Past efforts to relieve flooding in the neighborhood failed and initial efforts to get residents on board with the project were met with skepticism.

“They were let down before,” Bazile said.

The existing neighborhood was built in the late '60s and '70s on parts of a swamp and a parish dumpsite, making it vulnerable to floods. Many in the neighborhood say they couldn’t afford flood insurance, which is needed to obtain federal grants for flood repairs.

The state earmarked about $19.4 million for the resettlement effort, which is funded through a mix of federal and state grants used for disaster and relocation initiatives.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, who attended Tuesday’s groundbreaking, said Pecan Acres residents had to take a leap of faith to trust the project wouldn’t become bogged down in red tape with multiple government agencies.

"This is a wrong that's done right," Graves said. “It doesn't make sense to sit there and pay for a home over and over again, not to mention it disrupts lives and security.”

More than two dozen homeowners chose to move to the Audubon Estates, while others took an alternative option for the government to pay for their homes so they can move elsewhere.

After residents move out of Pecan Acres, the area will be reverted to wetlands, which parish officials say will take in water and alleviate flooding nearby.

The relocation project has been closely watched by state and national leaders because it may offer a glimpse into how Louisiana and other states undergo similar projects.

State officials in recent years have begun similar efforts, including a project that will move several people from a coastal Terrebonne Parish community farther inland, as well as another neighborhood in Gonzales that’s constantly battled floods over the years.

"I don't think there's any doubt we're seeing more frequent, more intense rain events, sea-level rise and coastal land loss," Edwards said. "We have to adapt to a changing environment."


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad