Even as the people of East Baton Rouge Parish focus on rebuilding what was destroyed by the August flood, they must select a new leader who can look to the horizon and implement strategies to blunt the damage caused by future storms.

There are several issues at play: a push for better forecasting and risk assessment, considering possible changes to building codes and choosing infrastructure projects to pursue.

Candidates to be the parish's next mayor-president have some inklings of policies they'd like to pursue to avoid disaster down the road. But they also are surrounded by unknowns, such as how much federal money the parish ultimately will receive to spend on reducing the likelihood that properties flood again. And calculating flood risk is a bedeviling process -- even scientists have confessed they don't totally understand the issue.

Assessing risk

Engineers have criticized federal flood maps as inaccurate and out of date. The maps are poor models of flood risk, they argue, though even critics admit they don't necessarily have anything better to offer. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials have said their maps are not intended to be used to assess risk and generally punt to local governments to establish rules to mitigate flooding.

Several mayoral candidates suggested the city-parish partner with local institutions to better understand this crucial issue for residents. Republican state Sen. Bodi White suggested the local builders association and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, while Darryl Gissel, who is not affiliated with a political party, pointed to LSU and the Water Institute of the Gulf, a new nonprofit research center, as natural partners.

Five of the leading candidates heading into the primary election on Nov. 8 roundly said a better understanding of local waterways and flooding issues will help the government craft better building ordinances and zoning rules.

"Going forward, you'd like to think that we'd change what we do," said Gissel, who is in the real estate business.

That doesn't just mean increasing standards and insurance in areas designated as low risk, he said. It also could mean loosening restrictions in areas now labeled as high risk that perhaps shouldn't be. 

White, who also works in real estate, remarked that the local government can only try to determine an "acceptable risk" — the sweet spot between making reasonable preparation and over-regulation.

"You can't do anything in business where there isn't some risk," White said.

As a child, Republican Metro Councilman John Delgado grew up near Meadow Park in the Village St. George area. Where there used to be woods, a Winn-Dixie has been built. Development in the area has made it more susceptible to flooding from Ward Creek as concrete and asphalt paved over soil, he said.

Risk analysts have noted that new development changes watersheds and can increase flood risk. However, despite growth in East Baton Rouge Parish over the years, officials have said FEMA maps for some waterways, including the Amite and Comite rivers, haven't been updated in decades.

Delgado said it would not be reasonable to base policy on the recent flood, emphasizing that the torrential rains in August were abnormally intense. However, he said the parish would be wise to gather data and work with FEMA to better understand the parish’s hydrology — the branch of science concerned with the movement of water.

Local academics, scientific researchers and professional engineers have met since the flood and expressed an interest in better understanding disaster risk and flood forecasting in the watershed around Baton Rouge, though efforts are still in the early stages and may require government funding to support.

Stricter building codes? 

The goal is that by forming a more complete understanding of present flood risk, the government can either enact new rules for future development or educate the public so property owners can make their own informed decisions about what precautions to take.

Engineers have argued that local governments should enforce strict building ordinances to prevent flooding, though they also note that at some point, the cost of elevating houses outweighs the benefit, and restricting construction in floodplains can hamper a community’s growth. 

The parish requires that new construction be built to 1 foot above FEMA’s so-called 100-year floodplain. Some parishes and municipalities only require new buildings reach the 100-year level, the minimum requirement of communities that participate in the National Flood Insurance Program.

Following the August storm, the Metro Council relaxed its building standards for flooded homes, a decision supported by all the major candidates. However, the changes generally applied only to rebuilding efforts, not new construction.

FEMA officials already have said they do not intend to update their maps to account for the August flood, and White said it appears unlikely that the state will rewrite its building codes as happened after Hurricane Katrina.

Asked if the city-parish should pass new building ordinances to address flooding, Democratic state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, like her competitors, said the issue needs more study.

"I don't want to jump to conclusions," she said.

The city-parish may look at updating its Unified Development Code for any necessary changes. Maybe it was accurate in the 1970s, but it could be due for an overhaul, she remarked.

Democrat Sharon Weston Broome, a former veteran legislator, addressed both sides of the issue. She pointed out that the local government needs to prevent new development from adding to flood problems down the road. At the same time, the city-parish can't "handcuff" developers with over-stringent requirements, she said.

She advocated for enforcing the current rules, which call for construction to be built 1 foot above the 100-year floodplain, while exploring whether new or different ordinances will be needed.

Delgado was resistant to adding new building constraints. Property owners should be allowed to make their own risk assessments, he said.

"I'm not going to interfere in the marketplace," he said.

However, if authorities are able to recommend higher standards down the road, people who still build to the minimum legal standards also shouldn't expect a bailout from the federal government, he added.

White called the city-parish’s existing building standards “pretty good” but said the government should educate people on flood risk so property owners can decide if they should build higher than required. Ultimately, many decisions will come down to agencies like the planning and zoning commissions, not the Mayor-President's Office, he continued.

Gissel also advocated for spreading the word about flood risk so property owners can make better-informed decisions. The city-parish has a floodplain management office, but Gissel described it as “tiny,” “sleepy” and underutilized.

Mitigation requirements

For Gissel, addressing flood risk is not just a matter of making sure people build their houses to a certain elevation. When developers want to construct a new subdivision or business park, especially in a flood zone, they have to perform wetlands mitigation wherein they rehabilitate areas that may have once been farms or ranches and turn them into retention ponds or hand them back over to nature. The process is not just born out of ecological concerns; when construction crews pave over swamps, they change the water system. Mitigation is an attempt to offset the damage.

Gissel wondered if mitigation plans are being properly reviewed to make sure they fulfill their role. The issue may be one of the best ways for the local government to oversee flood control efforts, he said.

As a result of the flooding, Louisiana also stands to receive millions of dollars in federal money to pursue large-scale mitigation projects. Those efforts could include money for infrastructure like canals, as well as purchasing buildings that repeatedly have flooded from property owners to turn into fields and marshes or defraying the cost for people to elevate their homes.

Without knowing how much mitigation money will flow into East Baton Rouge Parish, mayoral candidates were uncertain how it might be best invested.

Broome has suggested locals look to other communities that recently have flooded, such as Columbia, South Carolina, to see if they have come up with any strategies to address natural disasters that might work in Baton Rouge. She’s also suggested the city-parish appoint a resiliency officer to oversee disaster preparedness and recovery.

White said if the money would make the difference in building the Comite River Diversion Canal, that project should be pursued first. Otherwise, he said he would like to see funding used to dredge local canals.

Since the flood, Delgado, as a member of the Metro Council, has agitated for the local government to do more to clear out smaller canals, bayous and other waterways in the parish. If elected, he said, he would dedicate more resources to keeping local channels free of debris.

"I think we've done a crappy job of maintaining the waterways in this parish," he remarked.

Marcelle said the local government must be more vigilant to ensure that new construction includes proper drainage systems. Too often, the city-parish rushes through developments with insufficient local drainage, which can cause flooding elsewhere in the watershed, she said.

Gissel noted the problem as well, pointing to bottlenecks where subdivision stormwater lines connect with larger bodies of water that can contribute to flooding. He also noted that many local canals are lined with concrete, preventing water from seeping into the earth.

Candidates in general were cautiously supportive of the government buying repeatedly flooded properties from landowners -- White mentioned his previous efforts around Willowwood, and Delgado singled out areas near Blackwater Bayou -- though all said they would proceed only with the owners' support.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.