Denham Springs saw some of the worst damage in the August 2016 flood. As the rebuilding continues, the city is developing a long-term recovery plan — one designed by the people who live there. Denham Strong, the city's recovery planning group, gives residents an opportunity to advocate for what they want Denham Springs to look like years from now.
Over the summer, hundreds of folks filled the gym at Denham Springs Junior High for a series of community meetings with the goal of getting ideas for how to improve their city. Mark Gauthier lives in Denham Springs. He runs through a list of things that need to be tackled. "Getting rid of blighted property, beautification of the town, doing some re-development work in the antique district..."
Those ideas are exactly what Mayor Gerard Landry wants to hear. In April of this year, Denham Springs partnered with FEMA's National Disaster Recovery Framework. It's a process designed to guide communities through the long-term recovery of a disaster.
"The whole idea is to fuel the comment and questions from the community to find out what it is they want to see in Denham Springs going forward," Landry says.
Here's how it works — Denham Strong, the city's long-term recovery planning group, works closely with a team from FEMA, who walks them through the how-tos of community recovery and planning. The effort is headed up by Jeanette Clark, the city's community recovery coordinator. She says the role of the community in this is crucial, because FEMA won't always be here. "So what they're doing is showing us what needs to be done," she says.
For example, FEMA can provide guidance on how to organize community members around projects and what it will take to get them done. Then, it can help point the city towards sources of funding. But the whole point is that it's driven by the community — by people like John Cavalier.
Cavalier was born and raised in Denham Springs. He bought his home just down the street from the bookstore he owns in the antique village. "It's all 100 percent small business owners up and down the antique village," Cavalier says.
He likes to walk to work. Since the flood, that walk has become a tour of some of the problems the city faces in recovering. One of the first buildings he passes is a flooded elementary school — it's been sitting empty for one year now. Around another corner is a blighted building — a "For Lease" sign hangs in the broken window.
As for some of the other problems — they were there before the flood. "This is my big thing, the sidewalk right here, it just ends," he says.
Cavalier says Denham Strong gives the community a chance to examine these issues — blighted property, or enhancing parks, making walking to work safer and easier — and potentially do something about them. High up on the community's priority list, he says, is making the city more resilient against future floods. "Drainage, drainage, drainage — that'll be the first words out of anyone's mouth."
Mayor Landry says infrastructure clearly has to be addressed. But the goal of Denham Strong is broader than that.
"They say, 'well, all we need is drainage, all we need is drainage' — and I said, 'OK, well what else do we need?' 'Well we need drainage, and we need better streets and better traffic, that's all we need'; well no, there are more things we can do, so give me the ideas. I may be driving the bus, but tell me where you want to go," Landry says.
Cavalier says a few years from now, he wants a Denham Springs where that bus no longer has to travel quite so far.
"I really want to see more people staying here and doing more things here. I want to see people support their own community instead of getting in their car, driving 30 minutes and supporting somebody else's."
And after the flood, Cavalier says, there's a newfound sense of urgency to make it easier for residents to connect with and engage in Denham Springs.
This story was made possible by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.