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The bridge over the Amite River is almost under water in the Port Vincent area during severe flooding in Livingston Parish on Sunday August 14, 2016.

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

Scientists and engineers packed an LSU conference hall Wednesday for a post-mortem on the August flood.

In blunt, technical talks, academics, government officials and private professionals found a few reassurances following the disaster but also focused on ways to improve to try to mitigate the next catastrophe such as better storm forecasting.

Surprisingly, a brigade also formed to renew the fight for the Darlington Reservoir, a project dead for almost 20 years. It had been divisive in life, since it would have forced people upstream on the Amite River to move off their land so their property could be flooded to protect more dense populations downstream.

In the Baton Rouge region, 80 percent of the land that flooded was in high-risk zones. However, only about about a third of the flooded structures were located in those areas, according to preliminary data, said Shona Gibson, a risk analysis engineer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA sees those numbers as a positive because it shows that efforts to reduce flooding damage in high risk-areas -- through programs like elevating buildings and property buy-backs -- are working. Flooding in low-risk areas this summer was distressing, but FEMA has ascribed it to the massive nature of the flood rather than an impetus to change its policies, such as flood maps.

A practical concern, not discussed at length, is that the majority of people who flooded lived in areas where flood insurance isn't required by mortgage companies. That will have a huge impact on people's ability to rebuild and what kind of federal assistance may be required.

The conference also saw a charge for the Darlington Reservoir. The controversial project would dam the Amite River and intentionally flood an area on the St. Helena-East Feliciana Parish line. The project has been abandoned since 1997, said Julie LeBlanc of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It needs another look, she argued.

Over the years, the Corps and the Amite River Basin Commission have thrown out several ideas for improving drainage -- the reservoir, the partially finished Comite River Diversion Canal, widening and dredging local channels in Baton Rouge, levees at Denham Springs and making a plan for Bayou Manchac.

Following a discussion of the reservoir, state Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, who is a candidate for mayor-president, asked a pointed line of questions about how many properties could have been saved with a system of complementary projects. LeBlanc said it isn't clear.

All the sudden talks of the reservoir were a pleasant surprise for the state's public works chief.

"I'm very happy. I hadn't heard Darlington was back on the books," Christopher Knotts remarked.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, wasn't present for the reservoir-specific conversation, but when he dropped by later, he said that the region needs to look beyond the Comite River Diversion Canal as it seeks federal assistance for infrastructure projects. He advocated for what he called "Comite Plus" and asked the hydrologists and meteorologists to help guide the government's decisions.

Despite the interest, no one specifically called for the reservoir to be built. Rather, speakers like LeBlanc recommended it be investigated. The Corps doesn't perform work without a cost benefit analysis. In the early 1990s, they determined the project wasn't worth the effort, but by the end of the decade, the benefit outweighed the cost, but only barely. With almost two decades of new development, the numbers are worth revisiting, she said.

In fact, the most cost-effective way of addressing flooding may not be the diversion canal or the reservoir, but clearing out and widening all the little bayous and canals around Baton Rouge, according to Corps information presented Wednesday.

While lay people may be most interested in talks about flood insurance and new infrastructure projects, the engineers and scientists actually spent the majority of their time on a more esoteric, but perhaps a more important, matter.

They want to devise a complete model of the river basin. Not a physical thing, but one that lives in a computer where they can poke it with simulated rain storms and prod with hypothetical building projects.

The goal is to form a more complete understanding of how water moves in south Louisiana under actual conditions. Then, they can advise on policies like infrastructure projects and pinpoint residents' true risk without relying on FEMA maps or phrases like "thousand-year event," a term reviled by several in attendance.

Professors, research groups and engineering firms have taken bites -- one showed an analysis of Spanish Lake during the flood, another simulated the worst-case Hurricane Gustav path in the basin and others have looked at issues with sediments, or shifting river paths or the changes to the system brought on by the flood itself.

LSU and Basin Commission organizers encouraged attendees to form work groups, trade information and share advice on applying for grants to hire researchers. Even a conservation organization showed up to point out that, in protecting oysters and other wildlife, they've created some helpful water applications.

Meteorologists asked what kind of help they can lend -- the answer was more rainfall gauges -- and spoke about the National Water Center, which began to come online last year and will coordinate federal efforts to address hydrology but is dependent on locals to put in a lot of the leg work.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.