When William Ballard evacuated his house during catastrophic rains on August 12, 2016, his neighbors across the street remained high and dry.
Water flowing south through a drainage ditch that borders his subdivision near Denham Springs was held up at a pair of road culverts, he claims. The clogged pipes below the road acted like a dam, he said, forcing water back onto his street and into homes in his neighborhood.
Unlike the flooding that affected many people in the parish, this wasn't flood water from the rising Amite River. Instead, it was clear rainwater that could not find its way out, Ballard said.
When workers from the local gravity drainage district cleared some debris from the culverts the next day, the water rushed out so fast it carried foundation dirt from beneath people's driveways out with it, he said.
Now, Ballard and six of his neighbors in the Summer Run subdivision off Dunn Road are suing Livingston Parish and Gravity Drainage District #1 over the set of clogged culverts they blame for damaging their homes and driveways.
The suit alleges that the culverts, put in by Livingston Parish 12 years ago, were too small to effectively drain the subdivision and that the drainage district failed its responsibility to keep the drainage canal clean.
"The flooding of our homes was completely unnecessary, and all the expenses of repairing our homes and moving out and back in, as well as the losses of furniture and personal items, besides the stress and aggravation and mental anguish was all avoidable, if only the parish and drainage people would have done what is right," he wrote in a petition that he filed in court in August 2017 on behalf of himself and other neighbors. He added for emphasis, "DO THEIR JOBS CORRECTLY!"
The issue has been bubbling for more than a year now, as Ballard has lobbied his local officials for better drainage. Last month, the neighbors hired an attorney to help them pursue payment from the local government for damage to their homes and driveways and to compensate them for mental suffering.
Livingston Parish Public Works Director Sam Digirolamo said in a recent interview that the subdivision has a drainage issue due to culverts that don't allow enough water through.
That's the reason he recommended at a Sept. 14 meeting that the parish council spend $28,500 for engineering studies and $150,000 to replace the culverts with a span bridge next year. The council voted unanimously to do so, and the project went out for bid recently.
“We realized we could do better, so naturally that's what we want to do,” he said.
But Digirolamo is not ready to assign blame for the subdivision's flooding during the torrential rains of August 2016 to the undersized culverts. He noted that the residents had never flooded before, even though the culverts had been in place since 2005.
"Now, I'm sure poor drainage didn’t help, but I just can't earmark those pipes being the reason why they flooded," he said. "We had a major flood."
Mike Breinin, attorney for the neighbors, said he thinks the drainage district bears primary liability for failing to maintain the culverts, while the parish is secondarily liable for its "improper drainage system."
"I think it's clear cut," he said.
The culverts in question are the exit point for a lateral drainage ditch that carries water away from the Summer Run subdivision during rainstorms.
The underground pipes were put in by the parish's public works department to replace a bridge in 2005, Digirolamo confirmed. Ballard's suit claims the parish did no engineering or hydraulic studies when it replaced the bridge with culverts below the road bed.
The residents basically say the culverts create a choke point where a bridge over the drainage ditch would allow water to flow more freely.
Digirolamo said he doesn't know if engineering was done but said he has been unable to find studies prepared at the time. The drainage may have been sufficient at the time, when there were fewer subdivisions in the area, he theorized.
Meanwhile, Gravity Drainage District #1 is responsible for keeping the ditch free of debris, confirmed David Provost, chairman of the local gravity drainage district board.
Ballard claims the district failed to do that. Out of concern for his house, he went out eight times in subsequent months to shovel debris from the pipes to prevent further flooding, he said.
Provost said the district cleans the ditches on a regular schedule and cannot be expected to monitor every ditch at all times. On a visit to the ditch this week, it was clear of debris.
"I'm sure there were probably limbs that had fallen in there and washed up against the culvert. But we can't go every day and pick limbs up out of the ditches," he said.
But the public works director and drainage board chairman disagree about who is responsible for debris and silt sitting in the culvert itself. Provost said that is the job of the parish, since it lies underneath a parish road. But Digirolamo said it is the responsibility of the drainage district, because it is part of their ditch.
Ballard, a retired real estate investor, said he will "go for the blood," in his suit against the parish's "old boys club."
He wants repayment for the $41,000 he spent repairing his house, as well as funds to repair the foundation of his driveway, which he says was washed out by the flood waters.
The flood, he said, also put him in such a state of shock that he gave away valuable items, including an above-ground pool, boat and motor home, and he wants compensation for that mental anguish.
"All my life I've fought for what I've got," he said. "And negligent people come along and just take it, just take it, and say, 'Oops.'"