Parish buildings being upgraded

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 11, 2010



CONVENT — Construction is moving forward on several St. James Parish buildings on both sides of the Mississippi River as part of an initiative to upgrade hurricane protection and expand office space.

The first project, which is nearing completion, involves “hazard-proofing” at the parish courthouse in Convent, the courthouse annex in Vacherie, water plants in Gramercy and Convent, and the gymnasium at Lutcher High School, which is used as a storm shelter. Parish President Dale Hymel said funding for the upgrades is coming from the parish’s Hazard Mitigation Plan for recovery from hurricanes Katrina and Gustav.

“We were granted $5.5 million from FEMA and the state,” Hymel said. “We’ve spent more than $4.7 million of it already.”

Hymel said the parish applied for grant money to complete 11 different projects within the hazard mitigation plan, which sets forth how the parish prepares for natural disasters or emergencies such as hurricanes, tornadoes or other extreme weather issues. He said the building improvements are an attempt to prevent or reduce damage from future hurricane threats.

“The parish did experience a considerable level of damage from both Katrina and Gustav,” Hymel said. “Our goal with the plan is to retrofit and get the critical facilities to withstand any type of hazardous situation.”

Hymel said hazard-proofing work at the courthouse and both water plants is already complete and many other projects have begun to move forward. He said the upgrades at the water plants, which included elevating vital electrical system components to the second floor, securing valves and pumps and adding metal shutters and storm doors, cost $3 million alone.

In addition to the storm proofing, Hymel said the parish is also involved in construction of an expansion at the Convent courthouse to free up office and storage space for the court system and other parish administration.

“The parish borrowed about $3 million to construct a new wing on the western side of the courthouse,” Hymel said. “As of today, we are about a third of the way complete.”

Hymel said the move would put all of the parish’s court operations – clerk of court, district attorney, judges’ offices and two courtrooms – in the new building.

“The present courthouse was built in 1971 and has not undergone any major changes since then,” Hymel said. “Every department in the building is asking for more space. The move will also improve operations, comfort and acoustics in both courtrooms.”

Hymel said once the courts have settled in the new building, the parish plans to drop the high ceilings on both rooms and add a third floor for more office and storage space. He said the anticipated completion date on the expansion project is March 2011.