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Boats make their way up a flooded O'Neal Lane just north of I-12 during severe flooding in East Baton Rouge Parish on Sunday August 14, 2016.

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

A few weeks after the August flood, a Federal Emergency Management Agency engineer appeared before the East Baton Rouge Metro Council and remarked that the parish has the strictest flood-related building codes she's ever seen.

Rather, East Baton Rouge had the strictest codes.

In that meeting and others that followed, the Metro Council dismantled significant portions of its building ordinances generally without debate or opposition. Other local governments also took similar steps.

Essentially, the city-parish gave residents in low-risk zones a pass on certain flood-related building requirements and made it easier to avoid elevation in high-risk areas. People in the city and unincorporated areas of East Baton Rouge will still have to build one foot above FEMA's 100-year floodplain if they do need to raise a house, but fewer now face that prospect. In the suburban parishes, the worst hit will just have to build to the 100-year level, the federal minimum required of communities that participate in the National Flood Insurance Plan.

The changes generally were worded to focus on rebuilding efforts rather than obligations for new construction.

Baton Rouge enforced higher standards for years to secure more favorable flood insurance rates. Though the requirements ostensibly help communities become more flood-resistant, most of the conversations about dropping the extra obligations focused on what effect doing so would have on insurance premiums.

It was a sincere, compassionate attempt to help people escape the pain of elevation. Elevation is the technical term, and some people actually do jack their houses into the air. But the process is expensive, so costly that for many elevation means they have to tear down homes and start all over.

In engineering circles, elevation is acknowledged as a horrendous process. But civil engineers and floodplain experts also caution that all too often after a disaster the short-term fixes aimed at sparing homeowners immediate heartache can lay the groundwork for future disasters.

"I really don't think the communities are doing property owners ... any favors by rolling back some of these higher standards," said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. "Sadly, it is the rare community that will either hold strong to their more stringent standards or even adopt more strict standards."

Berginnis was blunt:

"I absolutely would not be setting the rebuilding level at the 100-year level."

The counterargument is compelling as well.

"You design based on what you can reasonably expect. ... I think (the city-parish ordinances are) a reasonable standard," said parish planning director Frank Duke.

The local government has to be mindful of what people can afford -- would they want to buy health insurance for a malady with less than a one percent chance of striking, he asked.

"Our intent is to retain as much of our population as possible," said Tara Wicker, who serves on both the Metro Council and planning commission. The city-parish has to allow for some leniency but be mindful of the flood in guiding future development, she remarked.

"It's a crazy balance that we're having to strike," she said.

How high the standards?

The issue is so complex, and there are so many unknowns that people who have spent their entire careers studying floods can articulately argue from both sides of the philosophical spectrum.

Building a house is like driving a car, began Robert Traver, a Villanova University professor who spoke on behalf of the American Society of Civil Engineers. A safe driver attends to traffic, obeys the speed limit and takes other precautions. But one bad motorist can still roll him over. 

A community may similarly prepare for disasters, but building infrastructure projects and forcing people to elevate isn't as simple as wearing a seatbelt, he continued. Those costs may not be worth the effort of mitigating rare events.

At the same time, "there's nothing wrong with a community saying 'We should have higher standards,'" he continued.

It's common for local governments to require that developers build to the level of the type of storm that has a one percent chance of occurring in a given year, the so-called 100-year storm that is the federal government's flood map benchmark, he noted.

"You're basically saying that you're going to have events and you're going to have some damage," Traver said.

Those storms are known as 100-year storms because they might be expected to occur an average of once a century.

"The 100-year (building code) is a fairly low standard, to be honest with you," said University of Maryland professor Gerry Galloway, who has advised several government agencies, including the state of Louisiana.

Like many experts, he's suspicious of terms used by the federal government like 100-, 500- or 1,000-year events. The terms are based on old surveys which may not be relevant in coming years as climate and conditions change.

"What we used to think were 100-year floods may be 30-year, 50-year, 40-year floods," he said.

But hydrologists and floodplain managers don't have ready answers. They talk about a mirage in which FEMA flood maps lay the issue bare in black and white, when really its shades of uncertain gray. People who live in high-risk zones have to construct to at least the estimated 100-year flood level. Maybe they build a foot up from that if they live in a strict municipality, like Baton Rouge, which despite loosening requirements is still tougher than some neighboring communities.

But being in a "low-risk" area doesn't mean a house won't flood. "It is not correct to equate a flood insurance map with safety," said David Hiegel, a natural hazard program specialist with FEMA.

Old studies

Engineers have a lot of problems with the FEMA maps -- their intent, their accuracy, their specificity. Berginnis, of the national floodplain association, also pointed out one concern particular to the East Baton Rouge maps: The studies on the Amite and Comite rivers -- the swollen waterways responsible for so much flooding after the heavy August rain -- haven't been updated in decades.

Data on the Amite hasn't been updated since 1989, he said.

"That's pretty old," Berginnis remarked.

"The Comite is not even mentioned (in updated versions) ... You've got to assume that the date is still 1971. That is really old."

A FEMA representative confirmed Berginnis's assessment.

That's a big flaw, since river basins change, the experts said. Not only is there the possible effects of global warming, but all the new houses and other development near the Amite are altering the way water drains, explained FEMA risk analysis engineer Shona Gibson.

Rain is falling where there used to be soil, which could suck some of it up. Now it's splashing on rooftops and pavement, and it has to go somewhere, which can contribute to flooding. And those new houses generate wastewater, which further changes the landscape.

Concerns over the federal government's maps are so prevalent that the American Society of Civil Engineers explicitly recommends against following FEMA flood maps in favor of higher standards. Homes should build at least a foot above the federal minimum requirement, and critical facilities like hospitals and power stations should be built at least two feet above the FEMA minimum and be able to withstand 500-year events, according to the professional organization.

Their recommendations are a reminder that elevation standards don't just apply to homes and businesses but public works, too. Governments have to decide how high to build things like roads, and were reminded of the fact in the recent flood when portions of the interstates washed out and stranded motorists.

LSU engineering professor Carol Friedland  argued that when local politicians lower the building standards, they're "making communities less resilient."

In 2013, she co-authored an article in Louisiana Civil Engineer that noted that "the foundation for flood design is based on expert consensus from the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, codes and standards for other hazards have far surpassed the level of protection against flooding, providing increased resilience."

It's not just an issue of personal risk, experts argue. Right now, Louisiana politicians are requesting millions to billions of dollars of federal aid funded by tax payers. When people flood, they ask firefighters and law enforcement to risk their safety to save them, Berginnis pointed out. 

"Flooding has so many additional costs ... that I don't think a lot of people have an appreciation," he said. "Those costs get transferred on to the taxpayers."

A home or business owner may ask how high to elevate, but there are frustratingly few answers.

The problem for scientists is statistical uncertainty. Some federal officials have labeled the recent flood a thousand year event, and locals have seized on the term to justify writing it off as a statistical anomaly. But at a post-flood conference last week of engineers, meteorologists and government officials, terms like thousand-year flood were consistently derided.

How can anyone give labels like thousand-year flood with only a hundred or so years of data, asked Bob Jacobsen in a separate interview. Jacobsen hosted the conference and serves as contract hydrologist for the Amite River Basin Commission, a political entity tasked with reducing flooding in the Baton Rouge area.

Using phrases like "disservice to the community" and "failed as a profession," some attendees at the conference said meteorologists and engineers need to be upfront when they don't know something, like the likelihood of a disaster.

Improve predictions

At the conference, academics and scientific professionals spoke of their desire to model the rivers of the Amite River Basin to improve forecasting and give property owners a more accurate risk assessment.

But that is work that will take time, time that people currently trying to right their lives don't have.

For example, many Denham Springs residents are expressing concern about raising houses and are expected to challenge initial FEMA assessments of substantial damage that kick off elevation requirements. About 45 percent of structures in the city have hit the threshold, according to preliminary findings. Those who live in high-risk areas who are not already at the current base flood elevation and remain at the substantial damage mark will be required to elevate.

In a perfect word, maybe every house in Denham Springs would be built with garages and workshops on the ground and all the living areas on the second floor or higher, mused mayor Gerard Landry.

But he has to be reasonable. Landry hears what's coming out of the ivory tower, but he's got constituents suffering now who just want to get back to something resembling normalcy. 

"I'm still a human. I still have compassion for people," he said. "Just let my people come back home again."

There's another factor in determining actual risk that individuals can't control. Infrastructure projects like the Comite River Diversion Canal and the Darlington Reservoir could improve flood mitigation, as new levees did after Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area. But anyone trying to determine his or her own risk will have to roll the dice on whether or not the local congressional delegation can scare up the funds for such projects.

Jacobsen, the basin commission hydrologist, has advanced an idea for creating a more nuanced flood risk system. It would divide properties into more discrete categories rather than current binary split between people who do and do not live in the 100-year floodplain. He has also tied those proposed categories to their percent risk of flooding to replace terms like 100-year and 1,000-year.

Maybe a high-risk zone would be one with a 26 percent chance of flooding over a 30-year mortgage, while a moderate risk zone would be one with a six percent chance of flooding over 30 years.

However, that level of certainty is going to take study. The researchers and engineering professionals who showed up to the post-flood summit at LSU have expressed interest, but also noted the need for funding to accurately model flood patterns in the region.

There is perhaps some reason for hope. FEMA estimates that 80 percent of the land that flooded in August was in designated high-risk zones, but only about a third of the flooded structures were in those areas. The data is preliminary and doesn't distinguish between different levels of flooding, but FEMA officials are taking it as news that efforts to mitigate flooding are working.

Shannon Dupont, the city-parish's floodplain engineer, pointed to several neighborhoods with newer construction where residents were spared by the floods because they built to more recent, higher standards -- such as Shenandoah and Carriagewood Estates.

Going forward, more mitigation includes elevation, but it likely will also involve a program in which people can sell their repeatedly-flooded property to the government, which turns it into parks, athletic fields, wetlands or other non-inhabited land. Funding to enhance those kind of buyouts is expected following the August flood, but state and local officials have said they have not yet identified eligible property.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.