Denham Springs town hall 082716

Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry, on stage at left, and Building Official Rick Foster answer residents' questions about rebuilding after devastating flooding, during an Aug. 27, 2016, town hall meeting at New Covenant Baptist Church.

Denham Springs residents, anxious to rebuild their homes and lives after the devastating floods earlier this month, packed a church sanctuary Saturday to find out whether they will have to elevate their homes before they set about getting permits to make the needed repairs.

The answer they received was as unsettling as the question: “That is one of the issues we are trying to address,” Mayor Gerard Landry told an audience of about 250 people at the New Covenant Baptist Church.

Homes built before latest flood hazard maps were adopted in 2012 largely avoided having to comply with federal and local requirements that they stand at or above the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s most recent base flood elevations. Existing structures were “grandfathered in,” and homeowners were allowed to make minor improvements without triggering the new standards.

But that all changes when a home sustains damage equal to half or more of its value.

Then it must be built at or above the base flood elevation, according to minimum standards set by the federal government and adopted by local governments in order to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program.

In a city like Denham Springs, where more than 3,000 of its 4,200 homes saw 18 inches or more of floodwater this month, the number of people who may now be required to elevate their homes or find somewhere else to live has put city officials on edge.

Landry said he has talked to numerous officials at the state and federal levels – including Gov. John Bel Edwards, Louisiana’s congressional delegation and the U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

“That issue has to be solved at the federal level,” Landry told residents, “but we here in the city of Denham Springs are going to do whatever we can to get you back into your homes.”

Similar concerns were expressed Friday night in Central at a FEMA town hall at Zoar Baptist Church that Mayor Jr. Shelton said more than 1,200 people attended. 

“There are citizens coming to me literally with tears in their eyes,” Shelton said. “They’re helpless. And we can’t get anybody other than (U.S. Rep.) Garret Graves or (U.S. Sen.) Bill Cassidy to acknowledge a problem on the federal level.”

Shelton said widespread house raising would cost more than most Central residents can afford. He said FEMA needs to allow people to rebuild at the level their house currently stands, with the understanding they will have to pay more for flood insurance. “We can’t have whole subdivisions raised,” he said.

Shelton said if people walk away from their homes because of rebuilding costs, it will hurt the local and national economy. “What will happen to the mortgage companies and the finance companies?” he said. “People are so frustrated. I’m begging for the federal government to come through and come through quickly.”

In Denham Springs, the answers were less than soothing to Paul Wesley, who said his neighbor recently received a permit to rebuild but was told by FEMA that he would have to raise the home 6 feet. Newer homes in the subdivision also were built up 6 feet, he said.

“Us having to raise our houses 6 feet off the ground to rebuild them would undo any help we would get from anybody to rebuild,” Wesley said. “We need something done before we can rebuild our houses.”

FEMA representatives at the meeting avoided similar questions about elevation requirements by punting back to the city and parish.

“They lay out those ground rules,” said Carl Ray, a mitigation specialist. “You’ll have to be in line with the city or parish ordinance. Contact your floodplain manager for requirements.”

Landry said after the meeting that the city adopted its flood prevention ordinance, which mirrors federal regulations, out of necessity.

“They kicked it back to us, saying, ‘It’s not our standards. It’s the city’s standards,’ but guess what? If we didn’t adopt those standards, they wouldn’t be able to get flood insurance,” Landry said.

Landry urged residents to remain calm, register for federal assistance and work with the city’s permits department as he and other officials worked on possible solutions.

In the meantime, Landry said debris removal efforts continue. Ceres Environmental had 16 trucks on city streets, as of Friday, and had covered about 25 percent of the city so far.

“The contract says they will make two or three passes, but in all reality, it will probably be eight, nine or 10 times because it takes time to get everything out of your homes,” Landry said.

Debris removal is expected to continue for about 45 to 60 days, he said.

The city’s contract covers only city streets, with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development being responsible for state highways, Landry said.

The contract also does not address commercial debris, which has caused problems in the city’s Antiques Village, where waterlogged furniture and other items are stacked in precarious piles that tumble out onto Range Avenue anytime someone picks through the trash, Landry said.

The mayor said he is working with Mark Harrell, the parish’s emergency preparedness director, to address that issue.

Follow Heidi Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.