NEW ROADS -- Demetra Stafford never thought she would see the day when she lived in constant fear of a major flood event in her neighborhood.

She lived 49 years in Pecan Acres, a subdivision that endured 17 floods over a 30-year period. Her fears will soon end.

Officials broke ground Wednesday on the first phase of Audubon Estates, a project that will ultimately relocate all residents from flood-prone Pecan Acres, which became commonly known as “Flood City.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards and Congressman Garret Graves joined local officials in the ceremony, which marked the beginning of the end for residents in Pecan Acres, where severe flooding has been a way of life.

“Those days were horrible,” resident Raymond Smith said. “We’d have to wake up at 3 a.m. to help people get furniture out of their homes, and I never thought we’d see something like this when the governor steps in.” 

Resident Sylvia Williams, who was also instrumental in the pleas to the Governor’s Office beginning in 2016, summed up the ceremony in a simple way.

“The governor kept his word,” she said.

Pointe Coupee Parish President Major Thibaut said he remembered the day as if was yesterday when he rode with Gov. Edwards through the flooded streets in an area that would likely see the same problem repeat many more times.

“We he saw that and heard from the residents, he told me before he left that we need to do something about this,” Thibaut said.

The relocation process came in relatively short time, when considering the involvement on Capitol Hill.

“It’s really amazing that we’re sitting here today, and with so much red tape in government and so many entities involved in this process, we find ourselves out here today ready to shovel dirt, even after all the entities and moving pieces,” Thibaut said. “I thought it would’ve been 10 or 15 years down the road.”

Edwards said the project for Pecan Acres will serve as a model not only for Louisiana flood mitigation process, but also for those across the United States. 

“This has happened very few times in the country, and I can tell you that there looking at nationally at how we’re doing this … there is interest in this on the federal level,” he said. “Even though we knew this was necessary through 17 times in 30 years, I know it’s not easy to leave a home – that’s where families are raised, it’s where people have birthdays and that’s where we’re connected.

“Your commitment to this project speaks volumes about you,” Edwards said. “It’s my hope that it’s God’s blessing that it will afford you better places to live and provide all the special memories that happen here, without the floods that disrupted your lives.”

Congressman Garret Graves – who, like Edwards, worked through flood events in 2016 – said the project was long overdue.

It was a project that overshadowed political boundaries, he said.

“There may have been questions if conservatively it was the most fiscally responsible thing to do, and I could go through liberal circles, but either way you have to say that the way people were living in this area was injustice,” he said. “At the day, this is a matter of fixing a wrong.”

Mayor Cornell Dukes said he had reached out to Graves after the flood in hopes Congress would get the project moving. 

He got a call from Graves the following morning

“Congressman Graves told me it was done, and that our community would be one of the first to get moving,” Dukes said. “They call this Audubon Estates, but I want to call this the Holy Ground.

“This is what true progress looks like,” he said. “Not only is it a model of what we’re doing for homeowners, but it’s also a model to show what can happen when Republicans and Democrats, African American and Caucasians can come together and work together as a team to get people out of terrible situations … this couldn’t have been done had we not all worked together.”

For Pointe Coupee Parish Councilman Edward “Pop” Bazile, who represents the area, the project closes the book to a horrid past and opens to a much better future.

“I can remember going through the neighborhoods to do what I was supposed to do to help my people,” Basile said. “Today, we’ve seen the light at the end of the tunnel – a lot of light.”

The project is the result of a partnership between the Governor’s Office of Community Development, Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana Land Trust and the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service. 

The groundbreaking paved the way for construction of 16 homes, which will mark the first phase in the relocation of residents from Pecan Acres. The target date for relocation to their new homes is summer 2021.

The Pecan Acres neighborhood had 309 households, approximately one mile south of Audubon Estates. Homes in the subdivision have flooded 17 times in the last 30 years. 

Residents in the flood-prone subdivision banded together and agreed to a buyout that would allow them to move to a higher, safer ground. 

All of the Pecan Acres will participate in the relocation.

The subdivision will be located on a 22-acre site, located outside of the 100-year floodplain. The site on La. 10 was one of 20 locations that went before residents for selection.

The homes were designed with input from the residents. Each home will be elevated an additional 2 feet to provide additional protection from future potential floods.

Construction at the site began in May.

Upon relocation of all residents to Audubon Estates, demolition will begin on all homes and infrastructure in Pecan Acres. 

The Natural Resources Conservation Services will restore the floodplain with native plantings and natural water retention. NRCS will own a floodplain easement on the property to prevent future development, and the land will be owned and maintained by Pointe Coupee Parish.

The relocation project will serve as a model for how Louisiana and other states adapt to the changing environment, according to Pat Forbes, Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Community Development.

In some cases, adaptation will involve moving to safer ground, he said.

“The Pecan Acres buyout and resettlement serves as a model that can be replicated across the state and nation to assure residents are protected from future flooding,” Forbes said.