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The pumps near Sorrento used for drainage in Ascension Parish. Aerials of severe weather flooding in Ascension Parish on Monday August 15, 2016.

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

GONZALES — Ascension Parish President Kenny Matassa issued an emergency order Tuesday suspending a parish rule that would have required the owners of some damaged homes and businesses to elevate their properties one foot above the record high water last month.

The executive order does not relieve property owners of all parish elevation requirements that they may face, but parish officials expect it will set the target elevation lower in some cases and could allow some property owners to avoid having to raise their homes altogether.

“I do not want to place any additional burdens on those who are substantially damaged and wishing to rebuild,” Matassa said in a statement.

Whether to leave elevation requirements in place or change them in response to the August floods is a question parish and city officials are confronting across the Baton Rouge region. The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council is expected to discuss easing a similar post-flood elevation requirement and other rules 5 p.m. Wednesday in room 905 of the council chambers, 222 St. Louis St., Baton Rouge.

East Baton Rouge Councilman Trae Welch has said he would like to exempt the recent floods from a city-parish ordinance that currently requires new buildings and substantially damaged ones to be built or elevated one foot above the record inundation. 

Even with Matassa's action to halt elevation to the new record flood, Ascension residents with the worst damaged homes and businesses in the lowest areas will still have to ensure their properties are one foot above the base flood elevation if they rebuild or significantly renovate, parish officials have said. That could require raising homes anyway.

The base flood elevation is the height that inundation waters are expected to reach in a 100-year flood, which means a flood that has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year. 

Not all owners of flooded property would have to elevate. Whether a house or business needs to be raised is also determined by how significantly it was damaged -- in Ascension the elevation requirement kicks in if the damage would require repairs costing 50 percent or more of the property's market value. 

The elevation height required by Ascension's now-suspended record inundation rule would have pushed elevation requirements even higher than the base flood for owners of damaged properties, Ascension Parish Councilman Randy Clouatre said.

Flooding that tore through the Baton Rouge region was prompted by severe storms the state climate officials have said exceed a 1,000-year rainfall in many areas across the northern parts of East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes, though not in Ascension.

But, a 1,000-year rain doesn't necessarily mean there will be an equivalent 1,000-year flood.

While U.S. Geological Survey officials have not yet determined the magnitude of the regional flooding that resulted from this immense rainfall, those officials have said high water likely exceeded a 100-year flood.

That could mean flooding heights seen across the region were also above those expected for a 100-year event, which is the standard for base flood elevations in the parish.

Flood damage estimates in Ascension have ranged from 10,000 to 19,000 homes and businesses, but a solid count of how many flooded homes were inside the 100-year flood plain, the most flood-prone parts of the parish, is as yet undetermined.

Still, many of the hardest hit areas according to anecdotal accounts, such as St. Amant, Sorrento and Galvez, are largely in the 100-year flood plain.

Lavern Bourgeois, parish building official, said he believes most of the flooded homes were in the 100-year flood plain, though some homes outside the flood plain certainly received damage as well. 

Matassa's order, which he announced late last week and signed Tuesday, says parish officials are still trying to determine the record inundation and residents want to return and rebuild now.

The emergency order is only in effect for 30 days, but Clouatre, chairman of the Parish Council, said the council is expected to consider making the change permanent in the coming weeks. 

One quandary for local officials is that the record inundation requirement and other rules in place in Baton Rouge and Ascension are tougher than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's minimum needed for participation in the National Flood Insurance Program, but they also earn ratepayers breaks on their premiums.

Matassa, the Ascension Parish president, told the Parish Council Thursday night in Donaldsonville when he announced his planned order that he and other parish officials have met with FEMA and staffers in U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy's office about suspending the elevation rule tied to the record inundation.

Matassa said he was assured by FEMA officials that suspending it would not affect the parish's ability to continue to be part of the federal flood insurance program as long as the parish retained the requirement to be one foot above the base flood elevation.

"Now they verbally told us that it would not (be a problem), as long as we gave a permit of a foot above the BFE," he said. "Now, they're going to give it (that assurance) to us in writing."

Clouatre said that keeping the requirement to stay one foot above the base flood elevation, which is tougher than the FEMA minimum standard, will also preserve discounts on flood insurance premiums.

"The thing is you want to help people, but you don't want to hurt them in the long run," he said.

The minimum standard under the federal insurance program requires that new construction or substantially damaged homes in the special flood hazard area that are undergoing repairs elevate at least to the base flood elevation. 

Both Ascension elevation rules, the suspended one and the one still in effect, apply parishwide as written, regardless of flood zone. But O'Neil Parenton Jr., parish attorney, said the elevation rule tied to the base flood elevation only effectively matters in the flood-prone special flood hazard areas. Those are the areas affected by the 100-year flood and are where BFE's have been determined by FEMA. Areas outside the special flood hazard area are above the level of the base flood.

Both elevation rules in Ascension, the suspended one and the one still in effect, could have a major effect on what the owners of homes and businesses that are deemed as "substantially damaged" would have had to do to restore their properties.

Ascension sets the substantial damage standard at more than 50 percent of the property's market value, the minimum FEMA standard.

In East Baton Rouge, the standard has been set at 40 percent, a tougher standard than FEMA's minimum, but City-Parish Councilman Welch has proposed loosening to the 50 percent threshold.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.