Walk-On's Bistreaux and Bar at Juban Crossing in Denham Springs proved a welcome refuge Saturday for weary, flood-stricken Tiger fans who packed the bar to watch LSU open its season against Wisconsin -- even if the final results weren't what they hoped.
Outside, there were plenty of ugly reminders of the brown water that ravaged the area three weeks ago. Dumpsters filled with sun-baked flood debris lined most of the businesses in the Juban Crossing shopping center, their owners slogging through repairs and taking stock of inventory destroyed by the flooding.
Walk-On’s, too, was among the businesses that flooded. But it was ready for sports fans as Les Miles charged onto Lambeau Field with the Tiger football team 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Patrons watching on the bar's many flat screen TV's erupted in applause as the Tigers took the field. And for a few hours, at least, they were able to put behind them the pains of gutting houses and the hard work and worries of flood recovery.
It was the first official day for LSU football for the year, and the restaurant played host to dozens of people eager for a normal day of college football and beer.
“I think a win for LSU would be a big morale-booster for all the people out here who have been through hell and back in the last month,” said 57-year-old Larry Burton, whose mobile home in Central flooded with more than a foot of water a few weeks ago.
But the Tigers didn't win, dropping their first game to the unranked Badgers.
"It was still definitely worth getting away for a little while," said James Michelli, who owns an auto shop in Denham Springs.
Others shared the sentiment, despite their disappointment with the game's outcome.
Ron Poitra, whose house and most of his belongings were destroyed, said he enjoyed getting away from the devastation of flooded communities like his for a time.
"Coming out here is exciting. It's amazing," he said. "But the outcome kind of brings you back down to what you're going through."
Burton, the Central man whose mobile home flooded, said he was able to move into another one in the same park and furnish it with some FEMA money. He’s planning on buying a house, but is in a “holding pattern” as he navigates aid programs.
“We’ve been anticipating this game since the schedule came out,” said Burton, a special education teacher's aide. “We’ve been counting down the days.”
“I’d rather be watching it at home,” said 49-year-old project manager Fred Carlson. “But it’s a break from doing the work.”
Carlson came from his gutted house a mile away from the shopping center. In recent days he has been redoing all the floors.
And he is one of many at Walk-On’s embracing a lull in the day-to-day life of gutting and repairing houses and enjoying little things like air conditioning, burgers and the No. 5-ranked LSU team.
But for much of the game, happy excitement turned into anxiety as the Tigers fell behind and trailed at half. The people who had crowded around the dozens of flat screens got quieter and groans grew louder for each LSU three-and-out or fumble.
The, the mood changed as LSU returned an interception for a touchdown. The pent up energy of the bar-goers exploded into a deafening yell and it began to feel like a normal LSU game.
The scene inside was a far cry from what it had been just a few weeks ago.
Daniel Poche, general manager of Walk-On’s, remembers returning to the restaurant a few days after the water inundated it -- chairs and tables strewn across the floor, the kitchen a “disaster.”
As LSU kicked off to the University of Wisconsin to start the game, Poche surveyed the business: people and families clapping and yelling for their team and waitresses and bartenders bustling about the restaurant. He took a picture.
“It’s all about having a place to go to, for people to be able to get out of the houses they’re gutting,” Poche said, “and forget about the nightmare that’s been happening the last 19 days.”
Poche estimated 80 percent of his employees were impacted by the flooding.
Gordon Sizemore, another manager, said it felt strange to finally go to work for a normal day instead of going there to clean up. Workers were paid to come gut the restaurant and help clean and rebuild during the recovery process, and a GoFundMe account for the Walk-On’s staff raised $50,000 for employees.
For Randi Corbett, a 21-year-old bartender, getting back to work felt “amazing.” She’s been gutting out her boyfriend’s and neighbors’ houses in recent weeks.
“It’s a nice little escape from everything that’s going on outside,” Corbett said.
Michelli, the Denham Spring auto shop owner, said both his shop and home were flooded.
“We needed this. We needed this bad,” he said during a break in the game. “But the game is gonna end in three or four hours and we gotta focus back on the task at hand.”