Two years after a flood ravaged the capital region, construction of new homes proceeds in much the same way.

Growth continues virtually unabated in the parishes hardest hit by a storm that dropped more than 2 feet of water in parts of the Amite and Comite watersheds. Despite the record flood that followed in East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston parishes, fresh looks at building codes and flood plain ordinances have brought about little change.

“I don’t think that there’s going to be any silver bullet that’s going to save us,” said Dwight Hudson, an East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council member. Although he spoke solely about his parish, the sentiment could apply just as well among its neighbors.

Since the August 2016 flood, permit offices in the three parishes have approved the construction of nearly 5,000 new homes — hundreds of them in the flood plain. If anything has changed, it’s that neighbors are now more likely to oppose new developments.

They recognize that every new home built and every square yard paved alters drainage patterns.

"Those who didn't flood this time are going down next time if this building continues. It's y'all's job to make sure this doesn't happen," Jackie Laurendine, an Ascension Parish resident, told her Parish Council last year.

The Ascension Parish Planning Commission had once been reluctant to deny projects that otherwise met parish development rules, but since the flood, the panel has rejected subdivision plans five times on divided votes. The majorities cited a “health, safety and welfare” clause in state law that, some commissioners assert, lets them address worries about drainage, traffic or both.

With the exception of the 32-home Hudson Cove neighborhood, which was proposed almost entirely in the 100-year flood plain in Galvez, the other four rejected subdivisions were later restored on appeal. The Parish Council last year affirmed the commission’s rejection of Hudson Cove.

Talk but little action

Since the flood, builders have pulled 1,844 new residential permits in unincorporated portions of Ascension. Looking forward, the parish also has granted key preliminary approval to another 872 subdivision lots for additional new homes in the future. Around 12 percent of those new lots will be built in areas below the 100-year flood plain and require fill of some kind. There’s talk of tightening the regulations but no action. 

“I simply cannot fathom why it’s taking so long to do this. Continued procrastination is allowing more and more inappropriate constructed homes in inappropriate places," Councilman Daniel “Doc” Satterlee said. Ascension lawmakers even shot down a moratorium on large amounts of dirt for new construction in areas with the highest flood risk.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, resistance to the proposed Lakes at Jones Creek subdivision was so fierce that Councilman Buddy Amoroso suggested a moratorium on construction in the flood plain until the parish could develop new guidelines. The Metro Council, too, rejected the idea. The development passed the Planning Commission.

The city-parish did manage some changes to its code. New developments must be able to store water and prevent runoff from a “25-year” storm, or one that has a 4 percent chance of occurring each year. It previously required storage only for the more common 10-year storm. It also fixed grammar in its flood plain ordinance but is awaiting more data before making deeper changes.

East Baton Rouge officials emphasize that they’re taking steps to study the flood plain with an eye on reform, but detractors say a business-as-usual approach in the meantime could have catastrophic consequences. The city-parish has approved 38 new subdivisions since the 2016 flood, and the local public works office has granted 1,747 permits for new single-family homes.

The approach to regulations in Livingston Parish runs in the other direction, with the government wanting to protect property owners’ rights. Some officials have characterized the August 2016 flood as a “fluke” that could not have been avoided. It has approved 1,349 permits for new homes.

Livingston Parish Planning Director Sam Digirolamo said local officials, engineers and developers have discussed whether new regulations are needed, but nothing has made it to the Parish Council. A municipal building official says people still putting their lives back together shouldn’t face additional hardships.

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“We want to leave it up to the citizens. If they want to spend and elevate their houses higher than the base flood, then they should. We encourage them to do that. But the city didn’t want to increase the burden for homeowners and builders,” Denham Springs Building Official Rick Foster said.

Looking forward

East Baton Rouge and Ascension are both creating stormwater master plans to guide infrastructure priorities and code amendments, but the science behind the hydrological review takes time, proponents said.

Karen Zito, president of the Capital Region Builders Association, cautioned that the community cannot react emotionally while awaiting data from scientific and engineering studies.

“We want to be on the facts’ side. … We want the solutions to be feasible and workable for everyone,” she said.

East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said all options would be on the table as the city-parish goes forward — perhaps even prohibiting development in some of the most flood-prone areas. She emphasized that the government is pursuing infrastructure upgrades even if the codes haven't changed. The federal government has already fully funded the Comite River Diversion Canal and the dredging of four major streams, and her office also intends to use federal hazard mitigation money to dredge and widen Wards Creek.

Still, infrastructure improvements have lagged behind private development for decades. After the Comite canal funding was announced, the chief of staff for Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, remarked to a legislative task force that the watershed finally would have the flood protection it needed in 1983, when another major flood occurred.

In Ascension Parish, officials want to know what would happen to insurance rates if the planned extension of the Laurel Ridge flood protection levee survives a Livingston Parish court challenge.

On a more philosophical level, projects like a new canal or levee can lull residents into a false sense of security, said Urban Institute senior fellow Carlos Martín. Even with new infrastructure, development in some parts of a flood plain can be risky and officials must still strive to enforce building standards and restrictions, he said. Residents assume that their local government will ensure that new buildings are constructed in a safe way.

“We’re increasingly finding that that’s not the case. ... We see this story again and again,” Martín said. “At a certain point, citizens have to hold their politicians accountable.”

Focusing on fill

Residents of new buildings aren’t the only ones affected by construction requirements. Existing property owners also can be affected if new developments displace water onto their homes. While they haven’t pursued any flood plain reforms thus far, Livingston officials are eyeing one change in the interest of protecting current property owners. Parish Councilman Tracy Girlinghouse plans to introduce a proposal this year to limit the amount of fill builders may use to elevate houses.

“I don’t think it’s good to put your house 10 feet above your neighbor’s when you live right on top of him,” Girlinghouse said.

Girlinghouse said he is not sure yet what the maximum fill height would be, but the new rule could force more people to use the traditional pier-and-beam construction.

“At some point, how do you fix the houses that are already there? You can’t,” Girlinghouse said. “But we can adjust the way things are built in the future. And we don’t want to get to the point where the infrastructure is failing us due to the lack of adjusting building codes and doing things that made sense.”

Almost since the day the waters fully receded in Ascension, the public and parish officials have been looking at building new drainage structures and making changes to the amount of dirt fill allowed for new developments.

Residents and officials have worried that the use of so much dirt was causing older homes built to lower standards to flood, despite the claims of developers and engineers to the contrary.

To hinder some of the most egregious fill practices, which had led to homes on high mounds of dirt known as “ant hills,” the Ascension Parish Council limited homeowners on lots smaller than a half-acre to dirt no more than 3 feet deep in 2013.

That change didn’t limit the amount of dirt allowed in subdivisions or other large developments. Instead, developers are required mitigate the use of that fill through detention ponds. The practice has led to odd contrasts in which acres of new homes stand on mounds of dirt several feet higher than older homes next door.

A proposed ordinance would limit fill to 3 feet in all instances. In some areas, property owners would need to find additional means to raise homes enough to meet the parish elevation standards. It also could pose a problem for a planned courthouse in Gonzales, which is expected to need more than 3 feet of fill.

The science of policymaking

Allowing the same type of construction in the flood plain is akin to an auto manufacturer who discovers a defect with one of their models but keeps rolling new cars off the assembly line without fixing the problem, said Willie Fontenot of the local Sierra Club chapter.

“Things had been built without consideration of floodwaters,” Fontenot said, advocating for a building moratorium in the flood plain until there are new ordinances.

Proposed changes have run the gamut from raising building elevation requirements; restricting slab-on-grade construction; requiring or encouraging the use of semi-permeable building material; increasing wetlands mitigation; and changing rules for fill, for water retention or for green spaces.

Incentives might work, too, said Haley Blakeman, vice president of the Center for Planning Excellence.

“Many places are using stormwater management impact fees to pay for infrastructure improvements that are needed as a municipality develops and grows. As an incentive, these fees can be waived if developers make specific stormwater management improvements on-site. Since the costs and incentives are directly linked to the cost of the infrastructure improvements needed for the development, it can be more palatable and especially effective,” she wrote in an email to The Advocate.

CPEX said it could provide technical assistance but leave the policy decisions to politicians. The Water Institute of the Gulf said the same.

“These things take time, and you can’t be absolutely reactive,” Water Institute Vice President Jeff Hebert said. “You do have to understand the science behind the (policy) changes … and tailor policy to what the science tells you.”

With few resources, it's difficult to form a complete understanding of the flood plain, Hebert said. Maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency “don’t really represent the current situation.”

For instance, FEMA has repeatedly indicated it does not intend to update its maps to account for the 2016 flood, reasoning that it was such a rare event as to be irrelevant to help set policy under the National Flood Insurance Program. LSU professor John Johnston, of the Louisiana Geological Survey, said the flood crushed all the statistical models of the Amite River Basin.

Rather than pretend the flood didn’t happen, scientists need to perform further study, he said. The 2016 flood could be an indication that factors such as climate change are making more extreme weather events more likely.

Though the differences are not great, some parishes already enforce slightly different building requirements in FEMA’s high- and low-risk flood zones. With the proliferation of more sophisticated computer programs, local governments, the state and the private insurance sector will soon be able to discern more nuanced risk levels, predicted Bob Jacobsen, an engineering consultant for the Amite River Basin Commission.

That means instead of the black-and-white distinction FEMA draws between people who live in the 100-year flood plain and those who live outside of it, people will be able to see if they live in the 50-year flood plain, or the 200-year flood plain, or some other more specific distinction, Jacobsen said.

“People are still kind of stuck in this NFIP mentality. … As we know, there are gradations of risk,” he said.

It’s unclear what effect a new framework will have on local ordinances, but Jacobsen said he hoped it would be a tool to guide nonintrusive construction.

Lax standards, lax oversight

Some believe local officials have slid backward. After the flood, East Baton Rouge loosened its standards on when flooded property owners must elevate their houses if they aren’t in compliance with current requirements. The decision raised some eyebrows but was understood as a strategy to give succor to neighborhoods in crisis.

Broderick Bagert, lead organizer of the faith-based nonprofit Together Baton Rouge, called the decision a Trojan horse. East Baton Rouge requires that buildings in the flood plain be built above the elevation of the record flood. When they changed the elevation requirements, the Metro Council also made an exception for the 2016 flood, which Bagert said he believes is a mistake. He said he wants new construction to be built to the level of the 2016 flood, reasoning that if a flood of that level happened before, it could happen again.

Asked if that wouldn’t effectively put an end to development across large swathes of the parish, Bagert responded that there would be costs associated with the higher-elevation requirement, but it is also costly to rebuild after a flood.

Although building to the record inundation was a local decision, many elevation rules are overseen by FEMA. However, the agency is not scrutinizing local governments’ flood response through an official audit as many had expected. Some officials are grateful that they’re not being constantly overseen and micromanaged.

With no new restrictions, new construction is charging ahead in fast-growing Livingston Parish, with 13 new subdivisions and all but one of them at least partially in the high-risk flood plain. Developers have not been quick to start building more resiliently.

“The more they have to do, the less property they have to develop,” Livingston Parish Review Engineer Chad Bacas said.

People have resettled in homes that are, by and large, the same as the ones that flooded. Hundreds, and probably more than a thousand, have renovated their homes in Denham Springs, but few have built back in a more-resilient way. Foster estimates that fewer 20 people have elevated their homes, as he did.

That was made possible because about half of the 1,200 homeowners marked as substantially damaged by FEMA, a designation that requires elevation or demolition successfully appealed their determination to the city so they could build without the restrictions, Foster said.

“I would have liked to see more people going up,” Foster said.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.