Photos, videos: Dramatic rescues in north Louisiana; major flooding in Tangipahoa Parish _lowres

Advocate staff photo by Bill Feig -- Flood evacuees in Tickfaw are taken to the Eagle Heights Community Church on Friday, March 11, 2016.

The state proposal to spend $1.2 billion on new flood protection efforts was sent Thursday for federal approval, hopefully unlocking access to the federal dollars as soon as next spring, state officials said.

The state Council on Watershed Management agreed to send the Louisiana Watershed Initiative action plan to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for review once a public comment period ends Nov. 29.

Officials with the state Office of Community Development told the council they wanted to move the plan along — with the Thanksgiving holiday break imminent — so the expected approval lines up with parishes and other local governments beginning to apply for the first $100 million round of money next month. 

The officials said they hope HUD will approve the action plan by early February. The state would then be in line to award the first projects under that plan by April 24. 

In the wake of the 2016 floods, Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration envisioned watershed-level planning and spending over multiple jurisdictions. With a heavy emphasis on data-driven decisions, the watershed initiative is being pitched as a way to better prepare for the rainfall-induced river flooding that swamped the Baton Rouge region and parts of Lafayette and northern Louisiana more than three years ago.

The March and August 2016 floods affected more than 145,000 homes and caused $10 billion in damage, the state action plan says. Since then, local leaders have been eyeing the big pot of money that Congress approved early last year for an array of costly drainage and other projects. 

The initiative's action plan doesn't lay out individual projects but describes programs, spending categories and rationales for how the federal dollars would be spread around.

The largest share of the money, $570.7 million, would be set aside in local watershed programs overseen by eight regional, multi-parish watershed steering committees. Another $328 million would go toward state projects and programs.

Nearly $146 million has been set aside for watershed modeling and monitoring to create the data necessary to pick projects and improve long-term planning. 

At least half the HUD money must be spent in the 10 worst affected parishes, including those in the Baton Rouge and Lafayette regions and in Tangipahoa and St. Tammany parishes.

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Alexandra Gelpi Carter, OCD resilience planning manager, told the state panel that once HUD approves the action plan — expected in 60 days — HUD and the state will still have to sign a separate grant agreement before the state gets a line of credit.   

"So this is why we keep preparing to move quickly. We want to be able to execute those agreements and move forward," Carter said.

The first $100 million round that state hopes to award in the spring sets aside $60 million for shovel-ready projects selected through the state. The other $40 million will be spread among the eight watershed committees to decide how to spend, up to $5 million each. 

In the first round, spending on projects vetted by the state must be between $500,000 and $10 million and must be shown not to have impacts on neighboring areas.

The Council on Watershed Management's action follows a public comment period that included public hearings in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Mandeville and West Monroe this fall.

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Carter said the state has received more than 70 comments on the plan but most have been focused on getting more details, not issuing significant criticism.

"I think the key take-away is that what we're not hearing is amendments to the plan. What we are hearing is, 'Give more detail about what the plan is going to do in my area and what it means for my specific project,' which is very good sign," she said. 

As part of the council vote, the body agreed to meet again to adjust the action plan if additional comments come before Nov. 29 that require significant changes. 

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