Broome White

Sharon Weston Broome (left) and Bodi White. 

It will take years to recover from the August flood, and the next mayor of Baton Rouge will likely oversee the disbursement of millions in federal recovery dollars and potentially be a critical voice in determining any restrictions on how people rebuild.

Bodi White and Sharon Weston Broome both say they want to get flooded residents back in their houses as quickly as possible. Both candidates emphasized the money should be distributed equitably -- across economic levels for Broome and geographic areas for White.

But neither candidate for the job has said much about how they would specifically like to spend the money or provided extensive details on their priorities. Those specifics will depend on how much money Congress sets aside, as well as any possible restrictions and whether the state or local leaders will hold the purse strings, both candidates said.

Louisiana has already received about $438 million in federal funding, and U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy recently said the state stands to collect another $1.2 billion in a budget bill currently under consideration. Exactly how that money can be used likely won't be known until after this Saturday's runoff election. 

Broome, a Democrat from north Baton Rouge, has argued that Baton Rouge should look to other flooded communities, such as New Orleans and Columbia, South Carolina, to inform the local response. They appear to emphasize residential rebuilding.

"I want people back in their homes. ... I don't want empty houses in our community," Broome said, adding that effort should include rental properties.

White agreed that local leaders must prioritize housing first, especially because so many of the affected homeowners did not carry flood insurance.

Generally, mortgage holders in high-risk zones are required to have a plan, while it's optional for those in low-risk areas, but White said the government shouldn't treat the two types of property differently. Doing so would amount to "punishing" people who live in the high-risk areas, which wouldn't be fair if the government let them build there in the first place, he said.

White, a Republican from Central, commended the city-parish's existing building codes, calling them "a very good standard."

He also emphasized that people in Baton Rouge, Baker, Zachary, Central and unincorporated areas of the parish should each have an equal shot at federal money.

White was especially concerned that the state will wind up directing the money, and he worried that they would take a sizable administrative cut.

For her part, Broome was frustrated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Shelter at Home Project, which provides up to $15,000 to homeowners to make minimal fixes to allow families to stay in their houses while they pursue more complete repairs. These repairs can include work like replacing exterior doors and providing a basic sink, toilet and mini-fridge, but Broome said the money could have been better invested.

She has also advocated for the appointment of a city-parish resiliency officer, who would be specifically tasked with overseeing disaster recovery and preparedness.

Both candidates have also called for better infrastructure, especially the completion of the Comite River Diversion Canal. White is also interested in forming a strategy for Bayou Manchac and revisiting plans for the Darlington Reservoir, an old and sometimes contentious proposal that was shelved years ago but has gained renewed traction after the August flood. Broome suggested the city-parish talk to groups like the Center for Planning Excellence to come up with future infrastructure plans.

However, both candidates noted that infrastructure is largely a secondary concern and that they are principally interested in rebuilding housing.

Planning experts are sympathetic with the politicians' lack of detailed proposals so soon after the floods, noting that large-scale disaster recovery is a confusing and complicated process. However, they also hope that in the fervor to fix people's houses, authorities encourage responsible rebuilding and take steps to ensure the long-term resiliency of the river basin. That could mean pumping some money into infrastructure projects.

While White and Broome have both advocated for investing in the Comite diversion, and White especially has spoken of dredging parish waterways, there are also hyper-local ways to combat flooding, pointed out LSU Prof. Traci Birch, a planner who worked in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

For example, an older neighborhood may have been protected from floods several decades ago, but if new parking lots and shopping centers have gone up nearby since then, it may be at greater risk. Now, rain can't seep into the paved-over ground and has to run off somewhere, perhaps into their homes. It might make sense to protect those residents with some sort of neighborhood-level stormwater project, Birch said.

It's also worth considering whether some land should be off-limits for future development, the professor continued.

Among experts, Louisiana has a reputation for short-sightedness, said University of New Orleans Prof. Marla Nelson. She specifically pointed to efforts in Central to redraw flood maps so fewer people would be in high-risk zones.

There's no rubric or guiding principal for leaders to follow when they decide whether to put recovery money toward rebuilding a city block or digging a new canal, though.

Elected officials are under a "tremendous amount of pressure" to fix people's houses as quickly as possible, and infrastructure projects are "wildly expensive," Nelson said.

Leaders have to look to the future to encourage growth, but make sure new development makes sense.

"(The mayoral candidates) need to understand the complexity," she said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.