Water systems experts and civil engineers say the ideal solutions to the flash flooding that's becoming more frequent in East Baton Rouge Parish during torrential rains are expensive and would take years to implement.
But residents of one of Baton Rouge's oldest neighborhoods, which has gotten swamped by storm water at least 14 times within the past five years, are demanding the city-parish immediately address what they call decades of mismanagement with the municipal drainage system.
The flash flooding during the June 6 storm served as a final straw for many in the Garden District, where residents have organized to push the city-parish to address the drainage deficiencies they say are responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage on one street alone.
"Any time there is an intense rain, our street fills up like a lake," said Thomas Douthat. "It drains fast afterwards, so I don't think it's solely about there being blockage. With all the rapid growth, I don't think the city has really looked at the problem comprehensively."
Douthat lives on Cherokee Street in the Garden District. During the heavy rains the morning of June 6, storm water rushed into the backroom of the home he purchased with his wife in 2018, causing $4,000 in damage. The couple's vehicles were also flooded, the repairs for which cost more than $2,000 in total, he said.
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His neighbors, the Forbeses, had to spend nearly $30,000 out of pocket after 3 to 4 inches of storm water inundated the Cherokee Street home they had lived in barely a year.
"After we moved in, we were told by neighbors to move our cars off the street if there was a heavy rain expected the night before," Clayton Forbes said. "I never got too worried, even when the water got close to my front porch, because I was told by the seller (the home) never flooded."
His wife, Erin, was home with the couple's two daughters the morning of June 6. Erin Forbes said it took less than 10 minutes for their three-bedroom house to flood after their 3-year-old daughter Elliot shouted that she was wet in a backroom.
"I went back there thinking I needed to change her and found her standing in a puddle of water that was rushing in from the backdoor," Erin Forbes said.
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Clayton Forbes tried to leave work to get home to his panicked wife and kids. He ended up having to call the fire department to help his family evacuate because the entire parking lot where he works at the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine was swamped, too.
Claire Pittman and her husband have lived on Cherokee Street since 2015. Their home has flooded to varying degrees at least six times since moving in. The June 6 flash flood was the worst, she said.
"We got almost a foot of water in the back of the house and both our cars flooded," she said. " We thought we had our dream home, but now we have all these issues. All the specialists we talked to said it is the city’s problem."
The residents estimate, at minimum, five homes and nearly a dozen vehicles were affected along Cherokee Street during the June 6 flash flood.
That morning, some parts of the parish got deluged with as much as 7 inches of rain within a 60- to 90-minute window. City-parish officials said previously that amount of rainfall overwhelmed the parish's drainage system and caused the widespread flash flooding.
The city-parish logged more than 600 reports from residents claiming the June 6 flash flood damaged their vehicles, businesses and/or homes.
Earlier this month, when the region was bracing for Hurricane Barry, which was initially projected to dump more than 20 inches of rain in the Baton Rouge area, Garden District residents got together and spent the day cleaning out some of the storm drains in their neighborhood in the hopes of minimizing potential flooding.
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One of the drains Clayton Fields helped clean out near the intersection of Park Boulevard and Perkins Road had so much mud and debris compacted inside that it filled five wheelbarrows.
"To have an entire drain completely clogged with trash like that is unacceptable during hurricane season," Fields said.
Garden District residents also sent a petition to officials and elected leaders on the state and local levels demanding they find ways to address the multifaceted issues they've identified in their drainage system, which they say is undersized and can't handle water flow in addition to having too many clogged drains.
Their petition charges the city-parish with allowing their neighborhood's drainage system, which empties into Dawson Creek, to become overwhelmed by "recklessly" connecting so many other new developments to the same system "without adding additional capacity" or "consideration for the flooding problems that would be created for existing residents."
They are asking the city-parish to:
- Connect the Cherokee Street drainage system to other nearby systems with more capacity
- Expand the drainage capacity for the neighborhood this year
- Foot the bill for residents to elevate their homes or install other flood-risk preventive measures and/or cover the flood losses for previous and future flooding in the community
- Compensate residents for the loss in their property values because of the repeated flooding.
Fred Raiford, the city-parish's director of transportation and drainage, will meet with the residents this week.
Raiford didn't dismiss their concerns, but he said more investigation into the neighborhood's drainage system is needed before he could make any definitive statements.
Raiford added that even if all the drains were clear, he has no doubt the Garden District, like many areas in the city-parish, would still have experienced flash flooding June 6.
"Climate change is here," he said. "If we get another high-volume rain like what we got on June 6, we're going to have problems with infrastructure regardless."
And those problems will likely crop up in many of the city-parish's older neighborhoods that have drainage systems that weren't built to handle the types of storms we're experiencing today, Raiford said.
His comments align with experts and engineers who say drainage systems are designed to handle certain storm events, and if they were designed even 10 to 15 years ago, they're already outdated, given the intensity of storms residents are now seeing.
It's an issue Dale Morris, director of strategic partnerships with The Water Institute of the Gulf, said is not unique to East Baton Rouge Parish.
Just last week, a short-term torrential downpour flooded neighborhoods and streets in several parts of New York in similar fashion to what East Baton Rouge residents experienced last month. A flash flooding emergency was declared in Washington, D.C., and parts of Maryland and Virginia when 4 inches of rain were reported to have fallen within an hour July 8, prompting more than 50 water rescues, according to local media reports.
New Orleans streets and communities often flood as well whenever there's too much rain.
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Morris said urban sprawl shares in the blame, resulting in undeveloped land that once retained large amounts of rainwater being developed, with no space for water to run off anymore.
"As more development occurs in cities, the less infiltration capacity you'll have," he said. "Eventually it will come down to how much are we willing to spend and what passes the public's sniff test. Leaders will have to say, 'Do you want to have such a robust drainage system that'll never get overwhelmed but cost 10 times more a year to maintain?' ”
The ideal solution Morris and engineers at planning firm CSRS agree on is for municipalities to retrofit their older drainage systems, something Raiford estimated would cost in the billions of dollars and involve ripping up residential blocks and homeowners' properties across the city-parish.
Other options, some a little cheaper, include designing parking lots, green spaces and parks with infiltration systems that can retain water, preventing it from flowing into homes and streets. Developers of lots of newer subdivisions try to do this by building retention ponds.
Homeowners and businesses can take similar measures by adding green roofs and/or landscaping with the secondary function of storing water.
"This isn't going to be solved for a while, but I've never seen so many people concerned as they are today about drainage," said Michael Songy, CEO of CSRS. "It's difficult to categorize them into a one-solution-fits-all scenario, which creates the real challenge."
The firm has performed master planning services, including storm water, watershed and drainage, for parishes across southern Louisiana.
Mark Goodson, resilience practice lead for CSRS, knows the public sees street flooding as a nuisance, but he said even that is a valid part of infrastructure design to keep water out of homes and businesses.
"There is a greater awareness now with people and the government; we're seeing a shift on the federal level with more dedicated funds being allocated toward disaster mitigation," Goodson said. "But with limited resources, you have to pick the shots you want to take."
That could mean more residents taking the initiative to clean drains in neighborhoods, or it could mean elevating homes in flood-prone areas, he said.
CSRS has already helped the parish's parks and recreation system with a resilience strategy to tackle the issue from another angle. The comprehensive plan positions BREC to utilize more of its parks and future projects to serve as retention green spaces to reduce flood risk for nearby communities.
"During the floods of 2016, we saw how our bigger parks along Highland, Burbank and Howell Park retained a lot of water and then slowly released it," said Reed Richard, BREC's assistant superintendent for planning and engineering. "We're starting to look at our parks as multifunctional. The idea is to introduce more nature-based solutions in addition to conventional engineering."
Raiford said the city-parish is waiting to complete its stormwater master plan before it takes an aggressive approach to addressing issues in the Garden District and the rest of the city-parish.
The plan, which has been gestating for a year and a half as officials wait on federal funding to pay for it, will be a compilation of local hydrology data that will help city-parish officials prioritize infrastructure projects related to reducing flood risks parishwide.
Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome has said previously she hopes to also secure outside funding for a $40 million initial match to utilize $255 million in federal funds earmarked for flood control projects in the parish.
The city-parish plans to use the funding for its Flood Control Project, an initiative that involves cleaning out and improving the five parish's main outfalls — Blackwater Bayou, Wards Creek, Jones Creek, Beaver Bayou and Bayou Fountain — which Raiford said should solve a lot of the flash flooding issues.
"If our big drainage points can't handle the intense rainfall, it's not going to matter how clean ditches are. The water will still back up," he said.