Deanna Welch, her hair up and shoulders bare, sat out on the steamy sidewalk in a soggy office chair reupholstered in cardboard, tapping feverishly on her cell phone.
“I’ve been on Facebook pleading for manpower,” she said. “All the help this week has been women, so I brought a guy from home today.”
Mud and the putrid odor of decay trailed out from the darkened doorway of the Louisiana Purchases Antique Mall, where the sound of wet broom strokes competed with the idling motor of a Red Cross emergency response vehicle near the corner of Range Avenue and Centerville Street.
Sidewalks typically filled with window-shopping antiquers were lined instead with glass shards, ornate furniture and caution tape. Windows were replaced by sheets of plywood and corrugated metal. A suit of armor stood guard in front of a shattered glass door across the street.
“In 21 years owning this place, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Welch said. “But at least I have a bed in Breaux Bridge to lay my head on at night and a shower I can use. These folks lost everything.”
Denham Springs, with about 10,000 residents, is the biggest city in fast-growing Livingston Parish, where over the past couple decades people moved in droves to take advantage of the top-10 school district and relatively short commute into the capital city. Now the streets in once tidy subdivisions, not only in Denham proper but in neighborhoods surrounding the city, are lined with couches, refrigerators and mounds of soggy sheetrock.
An estimated 90 percent of structures were inundated after torrential rainfall and a swollen Amite River sent floodwaters coursing through Denham Springs last weekend, one of the hardest hit municipalities in the devastated Baton Rouge region. The water poured into City Hall, crippling public services, ravaged neighborhoods from Old River Road to Southpoint, and shut down stores from the Antique District to Range Avenue to the multimillion-dollar Juban Crossing development east of the city.
All but a handful of school campuses in the area flooded, and Superintendent Rick Wentzel said he could not estimate how long it might be before students are able to return.
"It hit everywhere," Mayor Gerard Landry said. “No part of the city went completely untouched.”
'False sense of security'
Denham Springs has been defined by water from its infancy, named after the mineral springs that bubbled from underneath it and bounded by the Amite River to its west. But the city had never been more identified with water than in April 1983, when more than 50 hours of rainfall caused the Amite to swell and inundated some 3,025 homes and businesses in Livingston Parish.
That was the flood of record, part of the lore among families who would retell for decades the stories of how their homes were laid waste or narrowly spared by the biggest deluge imaginable — until now.
The flooding that has devastated Baton Rouge and the surrounding parishes was caused by a ra…
The slow-moving storm system that dropped more than two feet of rain around Denham Springs late last week, pushing the Amite River nearly five feet higher than it had been in 1983, changed just about everything residents and officials thought they knew about flooding.
“Initially we were telling people in certain areas, ‘Don’t worry. You’re on high ground. Stay where you are,’ ” said Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks, whose officials have estimated 60 to 75 percent of homes took water in a parish with about 54,000 housing units. “But that soon became ‘Get out! You’re not safe!’ ”
Residents went from one friend or relative’s house to another, and shelters opened and closed, as water rose in areas that had not flooded in decades, if ever.
Ricks said many residents were so confident their homes would not flood — especially those who did not take on water in 1983 — that they stayed until they became trapped and had to be rescued.
“They didn’t get their furniture up. They didn’t pack up,” Ricks said. “They stayed, out of a false sense of security, and then when the water came up and they realized how bad it was, they could only grab a few things as they left.”
Calls for rescue poured into the parish’s 911 center, overwhelming emergency responders who, at one point, were about 150 calls behind, officials have said.
Private citizens from across the region, seeing news of the devastation, headed out in their own boats to search for those in need of rescue.
They came in bateaux, canoes, crawfish skiffs and dual-engine fishing craft, launching off t…
It was two men from Port Allen who found Bill Crenshaw and his family Sunday afternoon at the back of Plantation Estates subdivision, just south of Denham Springs city limits off Range Avenue.
The Crenshaws had quickly evacuated from their home on Belle Helene Drive to the second story of a neighbor’s house Saturday morning, after the water rose from the driveway to knee-deep in a matter of minutes.
Crenshaw said he was reluctant to leave the house, which still had power, a working refrigerator and TV, if it meant going to a shelter.
“Where have you been taking the other people?” he recalled asking the men on the boat. “ ‘You’re the first soul we’ve found,’ they said.”
The men agreed to take him, his family and their two dogs to his older daughter’s house in Baton Rouge's Shenandoah neighborhood, but when they reached the Amite River off 4-H Club Road, the current was too fast for the men to feel comfortable taking people across, Crenshaw said.
So the family walked the I-12 bridge to O’Neal Lane.
“That’s a long stretch — much longer than you think when you’re driving it — and I was barefoot because I had lost my shoes along the way,” Crenshaw said.
From O’Neal, it was only a short truck ride to Crenshaw’s daughter’s home.
“About 20 minutes after they dropped us there at her driveway, my daughter and her husband got back,” Crenshaw said, tears welling in his eyes. “They had been out in his boat, trying to find a way to get to us, but the boat was too small for the current.”
Crenshaw said his daughter threw her arms around his neck and cried.
“She said, ‘You don’t know how we’ve tried to get y’all.’ ”
Crippling government, commerce
Across Livingston, more than 400 people remain in five shelters, including one at North Park Recreation Center just east of Denham Springs. Others are staying with nearby friends or relatives, returning to their homes each day to remove furniture, drywall and flooring and begin the long, hard slog of recovery.
Officials have not yet put a dollar value on the devastation, but the blow dealt to city government appears substantial.
“About 60 percent of our income is from sales tax,” Landry said. “When places like Wal-Mart and Home Depot will take almost two months to reopen, that’s two months of lost revenue for us too. Thankfully, Bass Pro didn’t go down, and Sam’s Club has reopened.”
Juban Crossing, the mall just outside city limits that opened to much fanfare less than two years ago, was hit hard as well. The developer has estimated about $30 million in losses there related to the flooding, the parish president has said.
“We’re going to have to make whatever spending cuts we must do to make sure we’re in a balanced budget situation,” Landry said. “Obviously, we have employees who’ve been devastated, citizens who’ve been devastated. I don’t anticipate any layoffs because I firmly believe there’s other things we can hold off on if we have to.”
Landry said overtime pay for emergency responders would also be a source of budgetary strain.
Meanwhile, other city services have been brought to a standstill by the 52 inches of floodwater that coursed through City Hall.
The water ransacked offices, flipped furniture and drowned nearly every paper record the city kept, but came about half an inch shy of ruining the 25 mayoral portraits that adorned a wall of the lobby.
“We were able to get the servers out in time, so we do have electronic backups,” City Treasurer Michelle Hood said.
Landry has been operating out of his city-issued 2015 Ford Expedition, as well as a mobile command trailer on loan from the Office of Emergency Preparedness, which the mayor jokingly dubbed “the new City Hall.” But until his administration can move into the Capital One Bank building on Range Avenue, other city departments like accounting, permits and human resources are without work space as well as resources.
Building Official Rick Foster “doesn’t have a permit he could fill out if he had to,” Landry said.
When city officials discovered the floodwaters had unearthed 19 caskets at Memorial Cemetery — one was carried nearly a mile south to the driveway of Denham Springs Elementary School, while another came to rest in a nearby canal — they had to scramble to find a way to return and store them at the cemetery until they can be re-interred.
Landry pulls no punches in expressing his frustration with “bureaucratic red tape” involved in the multi-agency response effort — from FEMA on down.
“They keep saying they’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming,” Landry said. “But OEP really means Office of Empty Promises. Nothing ever happens.”
Ricks said he can understand the mayor’s frustrations, but is quick to point out that running things through the parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness is the best way to ensure reimbursement from FEMA.
“These mayors are great guys doing everything they can for their cities, and I don’t blame them one bit for being frustrated and pushing for what they need,” he said. “I’d be doing the same thing if I were mayor.”
Landry said churches and other relief organizations have been instrumental in helping the city provide for its residents’ most basic needs — food, water, shelter, community — as the recovery effort gets underway.
“The lines are just phenomenal, people trying to get help,” Landry said. “The faith-based community has really made the difference. If it wasn’t for them, we would be hurting really bad.”
Landry said the outpouring of support from across the country as well as among residents has been a blessing.
“This whole thing has changed me forever,” Landry said. “I’ve always felt that Denham Springs is a special place, but now? You know, every time you see natural disasters anywhere in the world, you always hear them say how it brings people together and they talk about resilience. I see that now, more than ever.”