Mark Harrell’s face lights up when he talks about the $50 million in federal money that Livingston Parish landed to clean its waterways after the August 2016 flood. The parish's experienced homeland security director knows it was a major coup.

It started out as money intended for a buyout of homes in a remote, flood-prone neighborhood near French Settlement. But it turned out not all the homeowners there were on board with selling, and there was a risk that Livingston Parish would lose the money and it would be reallocated to some other state.

The question was, how to keep that from happening so Livingston Parish could keep the federal dollars and use them instead for desperately needed drainage work. Bureaucracies being what they are, that proved no easy task. In fact, a federal law had to be passed in what was described as a "rifle-shot fix" to work things out. 

"You hear people always say, 'Well that will take an Act of Congress,'" Harrell said in his office last week. "It took an Act of Congress."

The federal money following the historic 2016 flood came from an unusual source — the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But it’s now being used to conduct what Livingston Parish officials say is the largest drainage cleanup in the parish's history.

"We're looking at more drainage work than has ever been done in Livingston Parish," said Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks. "We've never had this kind of funding to do this kind of work."

Officials say they can clean and snag storm-related debris from more than 300 miles of rivers, creeks and canals across the parish, in the project which, coupled with regional flood prevention efforts, is expected to significantly improve drainage in the parish.

Already, the parish has cleaned and snagged 70 miles along three waterways: Tickfaw River, Natalbany River and West Colyell Creek. That work was funded from $3.5 million in emergency federal funds separate from the $50 million that's being diverted from the home buyout program.

Up next the parish will take on clearing Colyell Creek, Little Colyell and Blood River, with dozens more in the permitting stages.

Livingston Parish's unusual federal appropriation for significant, but relatively basic drainage work began as a buyout program for homeowners in a French Settlement-area subdivision badly affected by the flood of 2016.

When the Amite River swelled and shifted course, residents of Cypress Point, a 36-home neighborhood located on a bluff above the Amite River about 2½ miles south of French Settlement, saw swaths of their land fall into the waterway. Some people lost as much as 25 to 60 feet of property, causing panic-stricken residents to wonder if the neighborhood remained safe.

Hearing concerns from those residents, U.S. Rep. Graves, R-Baton Rouge, sought funding to buy out the subdivision through a USDA program in a December 2016 appropriation that also included funding for two other troubled subdivisions: Pecan Acres in New Roads and Silverleaf in Gonzales.

But unlike the other two subdivisions, residents of Cypress Point could not come to a unanimous agreement to sell their homes, which is required to participate in the USDA program. That could have resulted in Livingston Parish having to give the money back.

Graves said in an interview that he was strategic about how he communicated the change of plans, because representatives from other states wanted to pull the funds their way.

"Anytime somebody comes in and says, 'Hey, I can't use these funds this way,' ... All of the sudden, the vultures come in," Graves said.

The congressman succeeded in converting the money appropriated for the buyouts into the Emergency Watershed Program, which typically would allow local governments to clean and snag waterways — but only around public facilities. 

That's what required the literal change in the law.

A line in a March 2018 funding bill allows for this particular appropriation to be used in a more flexible way so Livingston Parish can do the cleaning and snagging projects across the parish.

"We did a rifle-shot fix for these funds," Graves said.

He said the USDA funded project is not by itself a "silver bullet." But in combination with other recently funded projects, Graves said, "you will see a larger puzzle that all fits together." Those other projects include the Comite Diversion Canal in East Baton Rouge, the $1.2 billion for flood mitigation and millions more in hazard mitigation funds.

For residents of Cypress Point, the parish has been facilitating buyouts for interested homeowners through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Harrell said nine homeowners have applied, but they will only receive 75 percent of their home value instead of the full 100 percent they would have received in the USDA program.

Funding for even relatively mundane drainage cleaning is critical in Livingston Parish, where little attention is paid to the waterways that move heavy rainfalls out of people's backyards and into the Amite River and Lake Maurepas.

About half the parish has a drainage district, but those are funded by just $5 million in tax dollars each year. The rest of the parish, especially the eastern side, has no gravity drainage and relies upon a small crew of parish workers to keep the ditches clear of debris.

The parish hired engineering firm Alvin Fairburn and Associates to examine many of the waterways in the parish in advance of this project and invited drainage districts to submit the ones they have trouble tackling themselves. 

"Each gravity drainage district turned in some of their problem children, the ones that are really more than they can handle," Harrell said.

"Their job is to clean the drains out, muck them out, but storm-related debris that went in, that's what this program is for," he said.

So far, the parish has used its standing debris contractor Ceres to do the work cleanup work. Officials are currently rebidding a new contract that will begin in April.

Parish officials say they are starting to see results.

Ricks said, during the recent heavy rains over the holidays, he received calls from residents who live along the Tickfaw River who said the water levels fell faster than usual.

"Even though it came up fast, it dropped, because it has been cleaned out," Ricks said. 

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter, @cgrueskin.