CHALMETTE, LA – Nearly 50 years ago, Hurricane Betsy hit Chalmette’s Village Square area hard. Over the years, brutal rainstorms washed out neighborhoods. Then came the ruthless 2005 KatrinaRita season — which rendered nearly all the homes in the Village Square area unlivable.
The time had come for residents and St. Bernard Parish officials to break the vicious cycle of flooding and rebuilding in the 31- acre section of Village Square.
Officials from the parish and the city of Chalmette explored cost-effective mitigation measures that the community would accept. They considered elevating salvageable homes, but raising the community’s ranch-style houses not only proved too expensive, the unstable soil under them would not support the pilings needed for proper elevation.
Property acquisitions, also known as buyouts, emerged as the best option.
“The buyout project did not fit our needs perfectly, but it did fit logically,” said Michael Bayham, grants administrator for St. Bernard Parish.
The city received a grant totaling more than $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to fund the Village Square project. It funded the acquisition of 56 properties, including five commercial sites. Since it started in August 2009, the city has acquired 38 properties, with the remaining 18 scheduled for completion by mid-2013.
HMGP pays up to 75 percent of the cost of approved public or private projects that will prevent or reduce damage from storms and other natural hazards. Property acquired with HMGP funds must be converted into open space, such as parks, and may not be built on in the future. The program aims to remove residents and their homes from harm’s way and end the cycle of destruction. Property owner participation in acquisition projects is voluntary.
Many Chalmette homeowners agreed to participate for several reasons. Bayham estimates up to 80 percent of the structures were not insured for flooding. Many properties were low- to moderately priced rentals with absentee owners. And some residents had already left: the area’s population dropped from 32,069 to 16,751 in between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
Uniquely designed for Chalmette’s infrastructure and community, the plan took into account the large canal bordering the town’s west side. The open land resulting from the Village Square acquisitions would allow for the needed expansion of drainage capacity in that area.
The Chalmette mitigation Photo of eastern view of green space resulting from acquisition has succeeded in large part because it considers local conditions, while recognizing the need for acquisitions to expand drainage capacity, vital in a parish composed of more than 74 percent water, the largest percentage of any parish in Louisiana.
Village Square may look different now, but that’s fine with residents.
Property owners no longer have to face rebuilding after inevitable floods and the parish now has a large open space for community activities. The annual Crawfish Festival even plans a move to Village Square once the mitigation project finishes, bringing joy to an area that has seen so much hardship through the years.