One-quarter of the Baton Rouge-area homes that flooded in the past week could have been spared if the long-discussed Comite River diversion canal was operational, one official long associated with the project said Tuesday.
For 33 years, government officials have talked about the canal, but it still exists almost entirely on drawing boards.
Don Thompson, who was the president of the Amite River Basin Commission off and on from 1996 through last month, said that while the diversion canal could not have prevented all the recent flooding, he estimates that it would have kept between 20 and 25 percent of the damaged homes near the Comite and Amite rivers from going under.
As hundreds of their neighbors in nearby parishes saw their homes go underwater during recen…
Zachary, Baker and Central would have especially benefited.
"(The diversion canal) probably would have saved my house," said Thompson, whose home in Central was among the flooded.
The design for the project calls for a canal from the Comite across the Baker area which would allow the river to drain into the Mississippi. It would be located north of the confluence of the Comite and Amite Rivers and would also lessen flooding along that waterway in southern Livingston and northern Ascension parishes, though to a lesser extent.
About 16 years ago the Basin Commission successfully lobbied East Baton Rouge, Livingston and Ascension voters, who approved a 3-mill property tax to help fund the canal. In their pitch, the commission said the canal would reduce river levels along the Comite by up to six feet. Even in French Settlement, miles downstream, the canal would have caused a nine-inch reduction in Amite River river levels.
Officials have variously blamed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for moving too slowly, the local congressional delegation for not securing enough federal funding, and the state for offering too little help.
Current Basin Commission President Ben Babin said some progress has been made -- land has been purchased, studies have been performed and plans have been drawn. In 2011, a $35 million flood control structure also was built, but none of the canal itself has yet been dug.
"This project is what you call shovel-ready," he said.
Babin lives in the Port Vincent area and said that his home, which flooded, may have been safe if the canal existed. If there is a silver lining to the recent floods, it is that they may finally compel authorities to invest in the canal, Babin said.
"It has to be important enough for the federal government to get involved," he remarked. "It would be a tremendous asset to everyone in the Zachary, Baker, Central area, especially Central. ... It would be a marked advantage for all the people in the basin."
At last count, the Army Corps estimated the canal would cost somewhere around $211 million. U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, an advocate for the canal, said the whole process is "broken."
"What is so frustrating about this is ... you spend billions of dollars after a disaster instead of millions of dollars before," Graves said.
The Army Corps has said that the canal has not been dug because they have never received sufficient funding. Graves, however, has accused the Corps of dragging its feet and earlier this year called for them to be booted off the project so it could be given to the state or the Basin Commission.
"If we could get (the Army Corps) off their ass and do what they're supposed to be doing ... we should be looking at a three to four year process," Graves said in a Tuesday phone interview.
Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said army engineers have been trying to coordinate with other agencies to get the canal dug, but that they continue to have trouble finding anyone to pay them for the work.
"Funding has always been a challenge," he said.
The Corps is studying the past week's flood to determine what effect the canal would have had, Boyett said. Graves said that Thompson's estimate of 20 to 25 percent of flooded homes that would have been saved by the canal sounded like a good ballpark estimate.
Statewide, authorities are still assessing the damage, so it's unclear how that percentage will translate into a number of homes. The governor on Tuesday said at least 40,000 people had registered for federal assistance, though that included people who live outside the Amite River Basin.
Thompson was unequivocal in his support of the canal.
"(The rain) came down so hard and so fast," he said. "The ground was already saturated and the water had nowhere to go. ... (The canal) would have helped tremendously if it was online."