- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

ALEXANDRIA, La. (AP) - Charles and Gloria Newton are at peace with their decision to accept a government buy-out of the place they’ve called home for 25 years.

Charles remembers having more than 3 feet of water in his house on Greenway Drive during Hurricane Gustav in 2008, and they have been worried about a repeat performance by a major storm ever since.

“I’m ready to get out of here because you don’t like to live up under the fear of flooding again once you’ve been through something like that,” he said.

The Newtons are among 58 families whose homes in Greenway Park subdivision - an unincorporated area near the South Traffic Circle in Alexandria - are being purchased with federal funds so they can be demolished.

As a result of Gustav flooding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency allocated about $6 million for the project to eliminate the risk of flooding to those homes, which were basically built in a swamp decades ago, according to Carrie Robinette, grant administrator for the Rapides Area Planning Commission.

Demolition of the first group of homes by Gulf Services Contracting is expected to begin in about two weeks, mostly on Linwood Lane. Meanwhile, the processes involving the buy-outs of other homes, utility cut-offs for vacant homes and asbestos inspections are proceeding.

“In Gustav, water was up to the window,” about 3 feet high, Charles Newton recalled.

The house had to be completely overhauled after Gustav because of the extensive flood damage. Fortunately, the Newtons had flood insurance.

Since then, every time a big rainfall hit Alexandria, his wife “got traumatized” because of the flood threat, he said. “She’s ready to go, more than me.”

Robinette has been the liaison between the property owners, the government agencies and private firms involved in the project. Although FEMA funds are being used, the money is being funneled through the state and the Rapides Parish Police Jury.

“The whole idea behind the program is to get these folks out of the floodplain and out of an area that floods as bad as Greenway Park does,” Robinette said.

For Phase 1 of the Greenway Park Subdivision Acquisition Project, $841,061 was spent on 11 properties for home purchase and related costs, including appraisals and asbestos inspections - an average of $76,460.

The average offer to homeowners for the entire project is around $60,000, and the project is running under-budget, Robinette said.

She is reluctant to estimate when it will be completely finished “because there’s so many moving parts” in dealing with federal, state and parish agencies as well as private companies.

Buy-out offers were made to 60 families with homes in the subdivision, and all but two of them accepted the offers. Participation by property owners is voluntary.

“Most people were tired of the flooding,” Robinette said of those who accepted the buy-out offers, although it was a difficult decision for many of them to choose to leave their homes.

Thomas Johnson Jr. and his wife, Lettie May-Johnson, are one of the two families who rejected buy-out offers and have decided to stay put, even though nearly all the homes around them on Linwood Lane will be demolished. Several families on the street already have moved out.

“They allocated some money to build this property up, but they elected to do something else with the money, and they want to push us out. I’m staying until they push me out,” said Johnson, who has lived in his home for 20 years.

Robinette emphasized that homeowners can keep their homes if they want. Properties will not be expropriated.

During Gustav, about 3 feet of water flooded the Johnson residence.

“We lost everything, but we rebuilt. I was a year out of heart surgery, and I gutted this house by myself,” Johnson said.

The time, effort and money that he and his son-in-law put into rebuilding the house give him that much more of an attachment to it. Also, he’s been on a rent-to-own plan, and he’ll have full ownership in a few months.

He said the buy-out he was offered wouldn’t make up for how much money and time he put into the restoration.

At 66 years of age with lots of health problems, Johnson said, “I told my wife, ‘If I happen to go home (pass away) first, you do what you got to do, but take care of yourself,” even if that means selling the house.

Buy-outs weren’t offered for all homes in Greenway Park, just the ones in the most flood-prone areas, especially those nearest the MacArthur Drive service road.

“Linwood (Lane) was in the center of the target area” because it has the most potential for flooding, Robinette noted.

When the demolitions are complete, those properties could be left as green space, turned into a park or become the site of a retention pond to ease flooding. That decision will be left up to the Police Jury, but the federal grant will not allow any structure to be built on those sites.+

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Information from: Alexandria Daily Town Talk, https://www.thetowntalk.com


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