Hundreds of millions of dollars are set to flow to three regions in Louisiana devastated by flooding in 2016, with an emphasis on establishing coordinated, regional planning to mitigate future flood events.
Gov. John Bel Edwards joined scores of local, state and federal representatives at University of Louisiana at Lafayette Thursday to detail the initiative aimed at providing multi-parish coordination to address the historic flooding that swamped parts of metro Baton Rouge and Lafayette in August 2016 and northeast Louisiana the previous March, damaging or destroying an estimated 113,000 homes and leaving tens of thousands languishing in shelters.
“There’s nobody out there who’s going to do a retention project or detention project big enough to keep all the water, so it’s going to go somewhere — it’s going to go off to the neighbors,” Edwards told the group of elected officials, scientists, engineers and emergency management professionals gathered at Louisiana Immersive Technology Enterprise. “So why not have the neighbors sitting down all at one time to come up with one comprehensive strategy to manage the watershed?”
The state, Edwards explained, is dispersing the money to local parishes, but will emphasize regional planning that deals with the three watersheds most affected by the 2016 floods — the Amite watershed in metro Baton Rouge, the Vermilion in the Acadiana region and the Ouachita in northeast Louisiana.
Edwards noted that experts still remain uncertain about the extent of last year’s flooding, which was unprecedented in modern Louisiana history save for the Great Flood of 1927 and New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — and the latter was more a matter of human engineering error than it was volume of rain.
“The truth of the matter is, in many areas we don’t know how bad it got because the flood gauges got washed away,” the governor said of last year's floods. “So, we know we had record levels of flooding in certain rivers and certain places, but because the flood gauges were gone, we may never know how bad it actually got.”
Planning and coordination for flood-mitigation projects begins in Acadiana and will continue into the fall; the planning team — engineers, hydrologists and other specialists coordinating with local elected officials — will then move to northeast Louisiana later this year and to the Baton Rouge area early next year.
Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, a former state representative who was less than a year in office when the flooding inundated his parish, said he embraced the coordinated approach.
“Ultimately, what happens going forward as it relates to the region is going to need to be an effort that involves everybody,” he said. “It’s not going to be any individual’s one idea, any city, any parish’s one idea. As we all know, the water really doesn’t care.”
The governor characterized the three watershed projects as laboratories that will ultimately benefit everyone in Louisiana. “These were the three most-impacted watersheds, and they provide a variety of needs, circumstances and challenges which will provide us with a more robust approach to share with the rest of the state,” he said.
The Acadiana region will receive just more than $30 million, while the capital area will get $221 million and $27 million for all of north Louisiana. The new funding, which is in addition to federal funding to help homeowners and others secured last year, comes from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program administered by FEMA. Funding allocations for these three areas are based on the severity of flood damage and by the number of claims made to Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Altogether, the state will spend $313 million on flood mitigation, combining the dollars from the 2016 floods and unspent money from Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.
The state began working with FEMA several months ago to plan the initiative, focusing on a regional approach to decision-making so that neighboring parishes affected by each other's flood-control projects aren’t operating in silos.
“Where does the water come from and where’s it going to go?” the governor asked rhetorically. “We’ve got to have a comprehensive, regional approach to this and that’s why doing it this way makes sense.”