The new $2.3 million firehouse on Weidman Street in Gretna has all of the modern technology you would expect a brand-new station to have, but its most salient feature isn’t a piece of equipment.
When the David Crockett Fire Department’s McDonoghville substation opens next month, it will be the first time in 50 years the city has had a fire station on the river side of the railroad tracks that run through the heart of downtown Gretna, routinely bringing traffic to a standstill when a train passes.
And Gretna residents have to look back only a decade for a reminder of what could happen if a fire breaks out in one of the homes, businesses or public buildings near the Mississippi River when a slow-moving locomotive happens to be snaking its way through the city.
That’s what happened in 2006, when a house in the 200 block of Gov. Hall Street caught fire and firetrucks couldn’t make it to the scene before it had spread, ultimately damaging five homes.
City Councilman Wayne Rau said that after that fire, he went to a Federal Railroad Administration meeting in New Orleans to find out what could be done about the trains.
He came back with an answer not uncommon for local policymakers who come into conflict with railroads.
“You’re never going to change anything; the railroad has all the rights, and the city has none,” Rau recalled. “I was determined as of that day. … I said, ‘We’re going to win by putting a station on the other side.’ And we got it.”
About five years ago, the city bought the Weidman Street property — between Washington and Adams streets — from the Port of New Orleans and, using Fire Department and city funds to match state capital outlay money, began construction in January 2015.
Thankfully, there have been no recent instances where trains have prevented the Crockett Fire Department from responding to a fire, but Rau said the incident 10 years ago could have been much worse.
“We could have lost lives,” he said. “And with the exposure we have with downtown Gretna being the seat of (Jefferson Parish) government, we have to be able to provide fire protection to the citizens, the businesspeople and the courthouse. That’s a hell of a lot of responsibility on that side of the tracks.”
Rau noted the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center is on the river side of the tracks as well as three courthouses and City Hall.
“Hundreds, thousands of people there every day, and we couldn’t get a firetruck across the railroad,” he said.
Rau has been a volunteer with the Fire Department since the mid-1960s but, at age 72, no longer fights fires.
“This gives us that ability to have a firetruck over there,” he said. “It gives us a little bit of time. The first attack on a fire is the most important one. We have volunteers that live over there, but without a firetruck to give them water, you stand there and just wait and watch.”
The new firehouse won’t increase the number of stations Gretna has because it will replace the former Gould Volunteer Fire Department station on Anson Street, which the David Crockett department has been leasing from Gould.
Although that station is nearby, it is on the other side of the railroad tracks.
Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.