FRENCH SETTLEMENT – Glimmers of hope have slowly overshadowed Mayor Toni Guitrau’s months of despair.
A long road of recovery from the August flood looms for French Settlement, but the village has moved past the fears of a governmental shutdown.
The most glowing example will come into play within two weeks when the village dedicates its temporary home for municipal operations.
“How long is “temporary” depends on FEMA,” Guitrau said. “We could be in this building at least two years.”
Work is near completion on a conversion of a storage building which will serve as the makeshift town hall. The 1,500-square-foot building will house an office for the mayor, clerk and one other employee, while another office will facilitate the police department.
The climate-controlled building will also include a small meeting chamber, public restrooms and a shower facility for police officers and other emergency personnel.
The conversion process began a month ago, shortly after the village sought emergency bids on the conversion, which came into play after FEMA denied French Settlement government two mobile housing units.
FEMA paid 90 percent of the cost for conversion of the storage building, along with repairs to the adjacent museum and pavilion. The village’s share amounted to $5,000, said Assistant Police Chief Lawrence Callender, who helped oversee the work.
“The best part is that our budget is in the black,” he said.
It’s a far cry from Guitreau’s fears of a government shutdown for the village a month after the storm.
Flood-related costs from damages and emergency response siphoned $200,000 from a pre-flood balance of $525,487
“We saw our balance go down to $300,000 within a couple of days, which left us worried about quickly the rest of the money would go,” Guitrau said.
Guitrau and Callendar – who both have extensive experience in grant-writing – got the ball rolling to seek government help on flood relief.
The village secured funds through help from FEMA and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
An emergency bid-letting process in December put the wheels in gear to move forward on the work storage facility, along with repairs to the museum and pavilion.
The municipal building – which includes the village police department – took in 25 inches of water.
“We’ve never been out of our town hall during the history of our incorporation,” Guitrau said.
She and other officials scrambled to salvage documents of ordinances and other municipal business, but furnishings and computers did not survive the storm.
The village set up a temporary town hall at St. Joseph Catholic Church Parish Hall, which donated use of the center for the municipal operations until the village can make other arrangements.
“We were probably the only municipality whose operations were conducted in the corner of a church hall, just in front of a statue of Jesus,” Callendar said. “Someone was watching over us.”
The return to a governmental building will allow municipal workers to resume storing documents in file cabinets, rather than the cardboard box they used while at the parish hall.
“Our town clerk (Megan Bostwick) and I are just excited to have file cabinets,” Guitrau said.
It will also return the police department to a facility of its own. Officers worked only out of police units since the flood.
“None of our employees complained about that because they knew many people in our community had it far worse,” Guitrau said. “We’ve had people who’ve lost all their belongings and came out the flood with nothing more than their dignity.”
The storage building itself may have never come into play if the village had not gotten help from then-State Representative Mert Smiley (now assessor for Ascension Parish), who sponsored an appropriations bill for construction of the building in 2009.
“It’s small, but it’s a place to operate, so we’re thankful for that,” he said. “As we’ve said, people in the community have it far worse than us – our residents are our main concern.”
The return to a municipal building marks the first hurdle for the village, but roughly one-third of the community’s homes remain unoccupied.
Some vacated homes have undergone repairs. Others await work, some require demolition.
“But so far, I’ve only heard of one family that isn’t returning,” Guitrau said. “Everyone else tells me they’re coming back.
Guitrau realizes help for the residents and work on the town hall will come first, but she believes the village’s pre-flood goals will still come to fruition, albeit several years later.
The village had begun plans in June for work on a community center to use for receptions, seminars and other functions. She plans to move forward on the facility once the village makes a full recovery.
The comeback will be a long process, but she sees light at the end of the tunnel. The village has received requests for rentals of the pavilion, at the same time repairs to the adjacent museum are near completion.
The signs of normal life came to mind for Guitrau as she looked out the window of the gutted town hall during the interview on a bright, sunny morning.
“The camellias are blooming and the figs are coming up on the trees – signs that spring is just around the corner,” she said. “Spring is the time when things blossom, and that’s what our village is doing once again.”