STEPHENSVILLE — The National Guard is present in both St. Mary and Assumption parishes, but those who venture down to this Lower St. Martin Parish community — which is vulnerable to backwater flooding and was inundated in the Flood of 1973 — won’t find any.
St. Martin Parish officials apparently turned down a request for National Guard presence in the community because they were told that they could handle operations on their own. They did, however, take fill the state offered for flood protection baskets and additional fill material to protect the area from flooding.
“We actually came down here and visited this area and talked to the sheriff’s deputies (and) talked to the parish president, who is running this, and asked them if they needed National Guard assistance, additional sandbagging machines, additional sandbags and they said they had it under control,” said Garrett Graves, director of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration.
However, St. Martin Parish Councilman Carroll Delahoussaye said the National Guard came when needed.
The feeling of whether National Guard presence was needed was mixed among Stephensville residents.
Those in Oak Harbor Subdivision, an area filled with high-priced homes, wondered why there were National Guard in neighboring parishes, but none available to help out in Stephensville.
Instead of waiting hours in line for sandbags, they decided to purchase their own sand and were fortifying the northside canal, called Doiron Canal, that subdivision developer Larry Doiron Sr. dug to elevate the subdivision and the area behind homes on Bayou Millhomme.
“You can’t wait on the parish,” said Oak Harbor resident Lanny Ross, whose home is near the floodgate at the back of the subdivision that is lowered when high water threatens the area to block off access to Bayou Milhomme.
Instead, the subdivision conducted its own operations, including the women dubbed the “Housewives of Stephensville,” who filled parish-provided bags with sand, and men taking the bags to the areas where they need to be fortified.
Residents lamented that the parish just provided jail trusties instead of seeking additional help for them.
“They can get my taxes, though,” Oak Harbor resident Cyrus Kiyanfar said.
Despite the fact that they say more can be done, they try to spend the time as well as they can, listening to music and cracking jokes, all while diligently working to fortify their homes and subdivision.
Backwater could threaten the Stephensville and Belle River areas, because once it backs into the area from Bayou Chene, it then travels into Bayou Boeuf and then Lake Palourde and bayous in these two communities.
Officials from various parishes, spearheaded by the St. Mary Parish Levee District, are working to sink a barge in Bayou Chene to slow down backwater flooding and divert it to marshes to the south.
“That project means everything for this community,” St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier said. “We have prepared ourselves like that project would not be in place.”
Still, the president said he hoped some type of flood protection would be in place after the flood fighting has ended.
Homes in Oak Harbor are 7 to 8.5 feet above sea level, while those in Bayou Estates are about 4 feet above sea level, according to Doiron, who developed both subdivisions.
Doiron, who owns undeveloped property just south of the subdivision, is raising his bayouside property another 2 feet to about 8 or 9 feet, using his own equipment and dirt to protect against any rising floodwaters.
Delahoussaye, who represents the Stephensville and Belle River areas, said that citizens here are used to protecting themselves. He said the parish is fortunate to have residents who will work for themselves and do what they have to do to protect their property.
“We’re pleased with what’s going on,” he said. “These National Guard people won’t sandbag for you. They’re here to give you protection,” he said.
However, Louisiana National Guard Staff Sgt. Dennis Ricou disagreed and said that if the parish had asked them to, the National Guard could have sandbagged and provided other services.
“For this emergency, we are only here to assist or support local (agencies),” Ricou said. “If they feel they have it under control, we have to honor that, until we’re told otherwise.”
Nearby at Doiron’s Landing’s Thrifty Store, a female clerk describes her days while checking out a customer.
“I’m so sick of sandbagging,” she said. “I sandbag, come to work, sandbag, come to work,” she said, alluding to the help she is providing to protect four properties in Stephensville.
On East Stephensville Road, resident Gage Topham said that it would have been nice to have National Guardsmen here to help load sandbags, but throughout the whole ordeal of flood-fortifying their property, residents took the attitude that they would just do things for themselves.
“Now it’s like too little, too late,” said Topham, who has sandbags around his mobile home protecting it from the bayou behind it. “We’re already done.”
He said the neighbors helped each other and sandbagged low spots on the roadway. He also praised the Stephensville Volunteer Fire Department for its work helping to fill sandbags.
Further down the road, Lee Clifton said operations worked fine so far without the National Guard as trusties helped to provide the thousands of sandbags he and his wife Sally fortified their home with.
“Now, I’m not going to say we won’t need them later,” he said.
The work was recognized by Gov. Bobby Jindal, who visited the area Tuesday.
“You’ve got some of the toughest, most resilient people you’ll find anywhere in the world right here in St. Martin Parish,” he said.
Residents in Stephensville have helped fill more than 400,000 sandbags.
While Jindal said that residents can expect higher waters this weekend, he said the arrival time of the extra water has been slower than expected because of a drought, among other conditions, and may not arrive in the area as fast.
“The bottom line (is) even with the lower projections, we know there’s a lot of water headed this way,” the governor said.
To protect La. 70, he said the state Department of Transportation and Development is building a barrier north of Stephensville.
Cormier said a mandatory evacuation won’t be implemented unless it becomes an issue of public safety.
He said he is confident the community will get through this flood fight.
“It kind of reminds me of the old Randy Newman song, redone by Aaron Neville just a few years ago where it says ‘Louisiana, you’re trying to wash us away,’” Cormier said. “Well, I’m going to tell ya, they can say that all they want, they’re not going to wash this community away. We’re going to be back. We’re going to be back stronger than we’ve ever been.”