- Associated Press - Saturday, April 23, 2016

VINTON, La. (AP) - Debbi Mc-Bride admits she’s cried a lot recently, and last week was no different. As she stood in the middle of a few dozen volunteers outside the chapel at Niblett’s Bluff Park, she choked back tears while thanking the crowd for choosing to spend a day working at the park.

“This place is so close to all of our hearts,” McBride said. “We just truly appreciate everything you all are doing for us.”

McBride serves as the park’s clerk and her tears over the weekend didn’t stem from sadness. In fact, not only was she happy, she was hopeful - something that many of the park leaders weren’t able to be over the last few weeks.

In March, the park was turned into a temporary island as roughly 7 feet of floodwater inundated the area. Early estimates showed flood damage totaling into the millions. The destruction was widely recognized by the local community as being far worse than what Hurricane Rita did to the park less than a decade ago. Still, without flood insurance, the road to recovery was hard to imagine for the park’s leaders.

“We’re depending on volunteers and donations for everything,” McBride said after talking to the crowd. “That’s what is so moving about seeing all of these people here. They all have a connection to this park, and they all want to do something to help. I’m at a loss for words, really.”

When fully functional, the public park spreads across 35 acres and accommodates about 75,000 visitors per year, with most people interested in RV sites and cabin rentals.

Now, the sole focus of the park leaders is to clean the area, check the facilities, and hopefully save one of the more iconic buildings on the property - the chapel.

Karen Belvin, an archaeology instructor at the University of Houston, organized the cleanup event at the park. Belvin has family ties to the area, and her interest in preserving the park was based both in emotion and a desire to preserve cultural history. She even brought several students from her university to help with the recovery effort.

Niblett’s Bluff is the site of an old Civil War encampment - Fort Nibletts. Some of the soldiers’ temporary fortifications can still be seen at the site.

Belvin was steering the focus of the recovery efforts to the park’s chapel, a building with original sections dating back to the 1870s. Volunteers removed carpet, tore down wall paneling and drywall, pulled up floorboards, and discarded anything else that was damaged by the flood. She said the goal was to remove as much as possible and clean as thoroughly as they could to keep mold from spreading.

“We’re trying to save this building. It means so much to this area culturally,” Belvin said while walking through the chapel. “The important part of this process is cleaning and determining the extent of the mold. We’re focusing on that.”

Belvin’s background as an archaeologist, and her love for anything historic, made the cleanup as much an evaluation process as it was a removal process. She often identifies significant areas of the building, including an original wall one of the offices shares with the chapel. Belvin also recognizes the importance of the hardwood floors, the raised ceilings in the chapel and anything else that, if preserved, could mean something to the community and park visitors.

“This park is significant on so many levels. It’s something you feel, and it’s almost hard to explain,” she said. “This place is well-known, and people feel attached to it. Honestly, it’s a part of what this community believes gives them a sense of place.”

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Information from: American Press, https://www.americanpress.com

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