For 17 years, residents in parts of East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes have been paying a local tax to help fund construction of the Comite River Diversion Canal, designed to lower the flood risk of nearby homeowners. Then in 2016, record flooding hit the region — causing billions in damage. The incident only ignited the demand for answers from frustrated taxpayers.
In September, about 100 people met in Central, a small town in the northern part of East Baton Rouge Parish. It's bordered by the Amite River on one side and the Comite River on the other, two rivers that swelled to record levels in August 2016, flooding the town.
The crowd had one question: will the Comite River Diversion Canal ever be finished?
"I'm telling you, this is not going to be dropped," says Central's Mayor, Jr. Shelton. "We're going to see this thing through, and we're going to see it through because of what's happening right here in this building tonight. So let's stick together and stay on task."
The task, Shelton says, is to get this canal built because in his town, it could lower the flood stage by at least 5 feet.
"It's a lifesaver for our community," Shelton says. "Whether you reduce the flooding by 6 inches or 6 feet, you're saving somebody's home from flooding."
A Lack of Progress
The canal is designed to stretch 12 miles, connecting the Mississippi River to the Comite River. When the Comite gets too high, the canal will funnel half the water west, into the Mississippi. If you think about the canal as a puzzle, it would have 27 pieces. But so far, only one is in place: The Lilly Bayou Control Structure.
Wayne Messina is a city councilman in Central. He says the lack of progress has residents fed up.
"They have every right to be," Messina says. "The people of Central, they understand that if that canal would be built, their sense of fear would be a lot less."
People like George Ellis, who owns a home on Cypress Bayou, right in the proposed path of the diversion canal. His land floods about four times a year. And the 2016 floods left more than a foot of water in his house. For the past 17 years, he's paid a tax to help fund the project. Once it's done, he says, he'll never flood again.
"It's sad that all that money is just sitting there," Ellis says. "Just take it, do parts of it if you have to — just to show somethings going on, get a little bit going."
Unreliable Federal Funding
There are three partners sharing the cost of this project: the locals, the state and the federal — the Army Corps of Engineers.
Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, Shawn Wilson, says the state has set aside the $87 million it's responsible for. But here's the question: is the federal government ready to split the bill?
"And that is what we want to make certain — if we start to spend those dollars, that the federal government is going to show up with their share," says Wilson.
So far, those federal funds have been unreliable, according to a legislative audit. So the state doesn't know when the money is coming, or how much.
That has some people, like State Sen. Bodi White, who represents Central, saying maybe the state shouldn't wait on the Corps, who's still on the hook for $125 million.
"The Corps of Engineers has had almost 25 years to do the project, and they haven’t done it," White says. "If they're not going to do it, the state needs to have a priority for this project."
Meanwhile, every single taxpayer in Central is also on the hook for the local tax to help fund the canal.
"That diversion canal has been sucking taxes from our community for decades now," says Shelton. "And we're just not making any progress, and we need to."
A Two-Part Approach
But Mayor Shelton warns the Comite Diversion Canal alone won't solve the problem of flooding in his community.
"It needs to be built," Shelton says. "It'll help minimize floods. It's never going to eradicate flooding."
That's a risk residents of Central know all too well — 9,000 of the towns 11,000 homes flooded last August. So as people rebuild — what steps can be taken at a local level to protect homeowners against future floods?
Dietmar Rietschier, executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission, sees it this way: lowering the threat of flooding requires two approaches. First — large infrastructure projects like the Comite River Diversion Canal and second — better city planning.
"We cannot keep building into lower and lower areas and expect that we will not have any consequences," Rietschier says.
The Impact of Urban Development
Those consequences were magnified last August, when record rainfall drenched the region and caused severe flooding. Flooding that was exacerbated by urban development.
"That includes subdivisions, it includes new roads and bridges and culverts and shopping centers," says Craig Colton, professor of geography at Louisiana State University. "The paved surfaces cause more runoff which adds to the volume of water that goes into the creeks and the bayous and the big rivers."
Colten says that while development in flood prone areas had a negative impact when the waters rose last year, it's an important part of a region's economic growth.
"Development means an enlarged tax base, it means more services, better services, better schools," Colten says. "All those things that we want in our communities."
Buddy Amoroso represents the southeastern part of Baton Rouge in the Metro Council. As floodwater spilled over the banks of the Amite and Comite Rivers last August, homes and businesses in his district were soaked. Now, he thinks the city should take a hard look at new developments going up in these low, flood-prone areas.
"I'm seeing every day when I sit on the council, and I approve subdivisions, some of them are in these hazardous flood plains. And so I’m very concerned," Amoroso says. "Are our rules adequate to be able to handle this type of development? This is what I want to be sure of."
Amoroso wants to put a six-month stop on the approval of new developments within the Baton Rouge floodplain. He says it would allow time for building codes to be studied and updated in ways that would potentially make new developments more resilient.
Understanding Risk In Order To Build Better
Carol Friedland is an associate professor of construction management at LSU. She says in order for people to determine how to protect their homes or buildings against a flood, they first have to understand their risk.
"Something that I don't know that many people know is, over the lifetime of your mortgage — 30 years — if you build to the 100 year elevation you have a 26 percent chance of flooding," Friedland says.
Building codes for Baton Rouge’s low-lying areas already offer some protection against flooding. The city requires building 1 foot above the base flood elevation on national flood insurance rate maps.
In most other parishes, that extra foot of elevation isn't required. Friedland says updating building codes to require building at higher elevations or with more flood-resistant materials – that makes communities more resilient.
"I see our residential building stock as part of our infrastructure," Friedland says. "And so having building stock where people can live, can improve their life, rather than having to take a step backwards every time we have a flood event — I think is an added benefit to the people of the state of Louisiana. Let's just build better."
Rietschier of the Amite River Basin Commission says there's still one question at the center of this debate.
"What is the level of risk we are willing to accept to maintain a viable community? And once we determine that, then we apply the laws and regulations and everything for that."
The flooding in August 2016 was an extraordinary event. And as extreme weather continues to cause damage to the region — and the country — that question of viability is one many communities are having to answer.
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