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Planned new neighborhood aims to give La Grange flood victims hope

LA GRANGE, Texas (KXAN) - A nonprofit dedicated to La Grange's recovery will cut the ribbon this week on a new development that would move flood victims to permanent homes outside the floodplain.

Close to nine months after Hurricane Harvey's floodwaters destroyed entire neighborhoods in the small town, the group's announcement is bringing hope to families that need a fresh start.

The Fayette County Disaster Recovery Team, or FCDRT, bought nearly 23 acres of land in the north part of town, far away from the mobile home parks on and near the banks of the Colorado River. The team hopes to avoid a repeat of last summer by moving families out of the floodplain.

People displaced by Harvey are slowly moving from hotel rooms to trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but those are by no means permanent. FEMA is also not the only place families went to for help.

"That first day we had 86 families come in and sign up, that they had basically lost everything," said Father Matthew Kinney, pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in La Grange.

He worked with the families who came to him to provide assistance through Catholic Charities, and the families kept coming.

Kinney estimates that about one-fifth of his parish, many of them Spanish-speaking, lost their homes when entire neighborhoods were wiped out.

"That was always heartbreaking whenever somebody comes in that says, you know, 'Padre, can you help us with this situation?'" he said. "Unfortunately, we don't have an answer right now. You know, 'Where are you going to live, where are you going to be able to go from here?'"

Kinney hopes they can go to the new development, called Hope Hill.

It's a strip of land, bounded by Horton Street on the south and State Highway 71 on the north, that's bare save for one structure and a few trees. The FCDRT bought the property with donations and plans to build 64 houses there, according to Executive Director Kenny Couch.

In the months since the group formed to respond to recovery needs, volunteers have cleaned out and fixed up many of the houses that needed it. But in the mobile home parks, where homes were knocked off foundations or flattened by floodwaters, the need was greater.

"They needed a safe place to call home for the rest of their lives," Couch said, "instead of someone just gifting them a mobile home and sticking them right back in the floodplain."

Across four mobile home parks, 172 families lost their homes, he said. 

The idea for Hope Hill grew from that need, and Saturday the FCDRT will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony as it continues the planning process.

Along with the 64 homes, the FCDRT wants to develop a portion of the land into a community park, including a fishing pond and community center housed in the structure that's already on the property. Couch said the group wants to make the park inviting, not just to the neighborhood but to everyone in La Grange.

The nonprofit pegs the total cost of the new neighborhood at $9.65 million, including the cost to buy the land and the cost of the labor. New homeowners there will be expected to help in the construction process in some way and will have to commit the remainder of any recovery money they've received, from FEMA or elsewhere, to their new house. After that, Couch said donations will make up the rest of the cost, and the homeowners will gain equity in their houses the longer they stay.

Part of the planning, Couch said, will be soil testing by a third party firm. As part of the buying process the nonprofit had a preliminary environmental site assessment done, but that did not include testing the soil.

That will be an important task moving forward due to concerns about arsenic contamination on the site stemming from a small dairy operation housed on the property decades ago.

Couch said they know about the potential for contamination, but expect if there is an issue, it should be minor, contained to a small area around the structure at the back of the property.

He doesn't expect the testing results to impact development unless it turns out there is a widespread problem. In that case, he told KXAN, construction won't start until the site can be remediated.

If all goes according to plan, it will likely take a few years to develop the land into a fully-functioning neighborhood like the ones that were wiped out. 

"We want it to be more of a community and not just a collection of houses," Couch said.

"We dreamed about this," Kinney said, "that this would be how we could rebuild." In his more cynical moments, Kinney worried it would take a decade to recover from the flood. But his parishioners never lost their faith, and the people of La Grange never lost their drive to help their neighbors.

"We're not only recovering. We're rebuilding better than it was before," Kinney said. "That's astonishing."

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