Trey Poirrier and Jerry Gravois stood in waist-deep floodwater near the St. Amant Fire Department Monday morning trying, unsuccessfully, to reach a relative’s waterlogged home.
Nearby, caskets were floating around the Methodist church. Volunteer boaters sailed by them with a rescued family of five, including three girls young enough to attend close-by Lake Primary School, also under water.
“The pictures and the videos don’t serve it justice until you get out here,” Poirrier remarked.
This is South Louisiana in August 2016 — people reduced to pleading for diapers in Central, whole neighborhoods wrecked in Baton Rouge, and most of Denham Springs buried under water and debris.
There have been other visions for the Amite River Basin — the main culprit in the catastrophe. As early as the 1970s, officials talked about drainage improvements, and their voices got louder after the horrific flood of 1983.
A canal would redirect high water from the Comite River through Baker and into the Mississippi River. A dam and reservoir would hold back the flow of the Amite in East Feliciana and St. Helena. Levees would protect Denham Springs.
Before and after: Photos show how water has receded in many flooded south Louisiana areas
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Three decades later, Ascension Parish has built several drainage pumps, levees and floodgates, but the big, federal projects have been abandoned or left incomplete.
Southeastern Louisiana, at present, has thousands of families digging out of their mud- and water-ruined homes, a gaggle of government officials calling each other incompetent and a flood-control structure with no canal to control.
No one has suggested that the proposed Comite River Diversion Canal or the Darlington Reservoir would have prevented the flood. But the canal alone could have saved up to a quarter of the homes damaged in the basin, says the former president of the commission that oversees the project.
Following the 1983 flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drew up several designs to improve drainage along the Amite and Comite rivers. There were some early discussions of putting levees along the Amite around Denham Springs, but the plan was deemed impractical, said Dietmar Rietschier, executive director of the Amite River Basin Commission.
Instead, officials focused on digging the canal and creating a reservoir on the Amite near Darlington, by the Mississippi state line. However, that project has also since been abandoned.
“It was always the idea to have these two projects working together complementing each other,” Rietschier said. “It would have benefitted (the region) by lowering the flood stage — to what degree, I don’t know.”
The Corps is currently studying whose homes the canal may have saved. They've previously investigated the effect the diversion would have during smaller storms, but nothing the size of the recent one.
The basin, and the rain
The Amite River itself emerges from Mississippi and forms the parish lines between much of East Feliciana, East Baton Rouge and Ascension on one bank and St. Helena and Livingston on the other. The Comite and Bayou Manchac are two of the bigger waterways that drain into the Amite, which eventually empties into Lake Maurepas.
Last week, as in 1983, the Amite became swollen with water, beginning a cascade of floods in the rivers, bayous and ditches farther upstream, a phenomenon known as backwater flooding. But while the similarities between 1983 and the 2016 floods are striking, there are several reasons for the difference in magnitude.
First were the circling storms that fed the floods. Barry Keim, Louisiana state climatologist, said nine weather stations in the region exceeded a 1,000-year rainfall event, which roughly equals 21 inches of rain in 48 hours. Most of that happened in the North Baton Rouge area and Denham Springs.
“It’s really no wonder that the floods were as catastrophic as they were,” Keim said.
The floodwaters that swept through south Louisiana over the past week may have reached 31 pe…
A 1,000-year rainfall event is one that has one-tenth of a percent chance of happening in a given year. In contrast, the more often-cited 100-year rain event has a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year. Despite the terminology, these events don’t necessarily happen only once every 100 or 1,000 years. In terms of probability, one storm doesn’t affect the chances of another happening, just as one flip of the coin doesn’t affect the next.
Todd Baumann, data chief for the U.S. Geological Survey's Lower Mississippi-Gulf Water Science Center in Louisiana, said it’s a safe bet much of the flooding is beyond a 100-year event.
“We had 12 river gauges across the state that exceeded the highest events we’ve ever seen, so we’re in completely uncharted territory,” Baumann said.
According to National Weather Service data, every gauge on the Amite River from Darlington to French Settlement broke an all-time record.
"We don’t even know yet exactly how much it was. We’re still working those numbers out,” Baumann said.
Compounding the damage is the growth of the communities along the Amite.
They have exploded in population in the intervening 33 years, putting more people and homes in the path of the water. The number of inhabitants in Livingston and Ascension parishes has more than doubled, from about 109,000 combined in the 1980 census to more than a quarter-million last year.
And now many of those people are asking what could have been done to save their homes and businesses.
Even before the floodwaters hit their highest marks, local officials began questioning why the Comite Diversion Canal remains unfinished.
The canal is supposed to begin at the Comite near the intersection of Lower Zachary Road and La. 67 and run westward between Baker and Zachary. The canal would take water from the Comite — as well as from Cypress and White bayous — before emptying into Lily Bayou, which flows into the Mississippi River. Upstream of the confluence with the Amite River, the canal would also reduce flooding in Livingston and Ascension Parishes, though to a lesser extent.
It would be 20 feet deep and 300 feet across — wide as a football field, said state Sen. Bodi White.
“That’s a lot of water,” he remarked.
The Corps has estimated that the canal could reduce the height of the Comite River near Central by more than 7 feet in a small-scale flood, and by 5½ feet for a "100-year" flood. However, there is no model for an event the size of what Louisiana just experienced.
In Central, 90 percent of the homes are flooded, said Mayor Jr. Shelton, who challenged those involved with the diversion canal to come out to his city and see people lining up for food and desperate for toiletries.
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“How many people’s lives ruined does it take to get the solution?” he asked. "It's disgusting."
The diversion would have the greatest impact on people in places like Central, Baker and Zachary, though it would make a measurable difference as far south on the Amite River as Port Vincent, the Corps has reported in the past.
That far downstream, the Amite also receives drainage from other bodies of water, including Bayou Manchac. A onetime trade route in Louisiana's early days, Manchac receives much runoff from growing south Baton Rouge, as well as from parts of expanding Prairieville in Ascension.
They came in bateaux, canoes, crawfish skiffs and dual-engine fishing craft, launching off t…
Toni Guitreau is both the executive secretary at the Amite River Basin Commission and the mayor of French Settlement, just down the river from Port Vincent.
“We have homes flooded that have never been flooded,” she said.
Guitreau said the canal would have helped prevent damage in her town.
“Even if it’s just an inch … if it’s your house, that counts,” she said.
At one time, the proposed savior of the Amite River Basin wasn’t the diversion canal, but the Darlington Reservoir. In the mid-1980s, then-governor Edwin Edwards declared that work could begin before the end of the decade. Some engineering and permitting was done, but the project never got off the ground.
The reservoir was controversial on several fronts. A 1986 LSU study found that a 19,500-acre reservoir along the East Feliciana-St. Helena Parish line could have dropped the level of the Amite River by 6.6 feet in Denham Springs during the 1983 flood by storing water and allowing its controlled release.
However, building the reservoir would have displaced existing homes and farms.
Some detractors were also suspicious of the state Department of Transportation and Development after the agency proposed making the reservoir a tourist destination complete with a 1,000-acre resort park with overnight lodging.
The other major issue was economics. While the diversion canal is currently estimated to cost between $212 to $222 million, the price tag on the reservoir reached $154 million back in 1989.
That year, a private engineering firm said the dam and reservoir would be economically viable, but not everyone believed that estimation. In 1990, the St. Helena Parish Police Jury wrote a joint letter to the editor excoriating the project, claiming the project would "unfairly destroy the homes, livelihoods and property" of some people near the reservoir and endanger others downstream of the dam.
"We do not put much stock in the hollow claims of some personnel in the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that they can build a safe dam,” they wrote.
In 1992 the Corps of Engineers opined that the cost of Darlington would outweigh the benefits. A few years later the Corps said there would be ways to save money on construction, but the reservoir never came to fruition.
Late last week, Corps public affairs officer Ricky Boyett said factors like population and infrastructure have changed substantially since the matter was last researched. The Basin Commission's Rietschier said that though Darlington hasn’t been part of the conversation for a while, the recent flood may reignite interest.
Ascension's own system
A year before the 1983 flood, Ascension Parish had put down on paper an overarching plan for a series of levees, pumps, floodgates and bayou improvements that would drain the parish when it rained and protect it from high water when the Amite flooded.
The document served as an engineering and financing plan — and political pamphlet — that allowed parish leaders to sell a half-cent sales tax to fund the future system. The 1984 ballot language for the tax references that plan, which outlined the parish’s homegrown flood protection system as it largely exists today.
While many parts of the parish are drained by gravity into Bayou Manchac, the Amite River or the Blind River swamp, the plan’s key infrastructure feature was a battery of five pumps in the middle of the McElroy Swamp at the confluence of two major drainage arteries, New River/Bayou Francois and Saveiro Canal.
Known as the Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station, after one of the plan’s major proponents, it now has six pumps and is slated for a seventh. The station works like a big drain at the bottom of East Ascension’s bathtub. Gonzales, St. Amant and southern Prairieville are all part of the station’s 76-square-mile drainage area.
The Laurel Ridge levee, a floodgate at Henderson Bayou in Galvez and smaller pumps and levees in Sorrento make much of the rest of the plan’s physical infrastructure, which alternately drains runoff or stops high water.
The parish-funded system was spurred by a series of floods in the 1970s and early 1980s during a period of above-average rain in the Amite River Basin. A grassroots pressure group formed, the Sandbaggers. Named with a sly wink at having had to sandbag homes after repeated floods, the group began pushing the then-resistant Police Jury to act.
"That's about the time we started to say, 'Well, you know, this is not an engineering problem, this is political problem,'" Willard J. Cointment Jr., a now retired surveyor and forming member of the group, said in 2011.
Parish leaders said they did not believe big dollar projects proposed by the state and Corps — the Comite Diversion and the Darlington Reservoir — could be finished in a timely fashion. They stopped a corps study of the parish’s drainage issues in favor of their own plan.
The flooding that has devastated Baton Rouge and the surrounding parishes was caused by a ra…
Former four-term Parish President Tommy Martinez, whose home is north of St. Amant and flooded for the first time last week, said the diversion wasn’t being discussed when Ascension first discussed its master plan.
“That wasn’t even talked about,” Martinez said of the diversion.
Free of Corps entanglements, the parish built the pumps and other structures. Parish officials acknowledge those structures likely would not have met the Corps’ cost-benefit analysis standard in what was still a rural parish in those years.
After running afoul of the Corps over digging out bayous without permits and years of political wrangling, the last major piece of the system envisioned by the parish's master plan, the Henderson Bayou floodgate, was finished nearly two years ago.
The gates and a connected 14-foot-high levee are designed to stop water in the Amite River from flowing upstream into Henderson Bayou and flooding the Galvez area. Like many aspects of the parish system, the floodgate and levee were pegged to the historic crest of the Amite at Port Vincent in 1983 at 14.65 feet.
In engineering the new system, Ascension officials designed it to withstand a repeat of the 1983 flood, partly because it was the all-time maximum flood, but also due to the cost of building something even more robust.
But last week’s flooding pushed the all-time record nearly three feet higher, to 17.5 feet, on the Amite at Port Vincent. About 19,000 homes and businesses flooded in Ascension alone, and the devastation was underscored Thursday night in an emotional Parish Council meeting, where several members held back tears while expressing their feelings of loss and appreciation.
“I went up in a helicopter tour two days ago,” Council Chairman Randy Clouatre said of his heavily flooded St. Amant-area council district. “It looked like Hurricane Katrina. Nothing but rooftops, and approximately 30 of them are my family members, but another 1,500 belonged to people I care for.”
It’s now clear, some parish officials say, that new benchmarks have to be set. The $21 million Henderson Bayou structure that took three years to build, the levees, and even the Marvin Braud Pump Station were overwhelmed by the flooding.
The parish has $41 million in drainage money from sales and property tax surplus and another $27 million left from a 2007 bond issue that helped finish the Henderson Bayou floodgate. Much of that money is earmarked to projects, but those could get another look.
Councilman Dempsey Lambert, a major proponent of the floodgate, said a new drainage master plan is needed.
“We’ve seen water move in directions it’s never moved before,” he said.
The Amite River Basin Commission was supposed to hold its monthly meeting last Tuesday, but it was delayed indefinitely because commissioners were trapped by floodwater and could not reach the office on Sherwood Forest Boulevard. The commission is considering whether to move to a larger meeting place in anticipation of a crowd of attendees.
Shelton, the Central mayor, vowed to go and find out why the diversion canal has not been built.
"I lay this flood at the feet of the people who are sitting on their hands at the Comite River Diversion Canal," he said.
Shelton doesn't know who's at fault but said the various entities appear to be playing a "power game."
Officials spread the blame for the lack of progress, from the general — like lack of funding from the state or the federal government and sluggishness from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — to the excruciatingly specific — such as bickering over which specific areas can be set aside as wetlands mitigation to counteract the ecological damage to swamps caused by building the canal.
White, the state senator, pointed out that residents in Ascension, Livingston and East Baton Rouge have been paying a 3-mill property tax for over a decade and haven't seen any significant progress.
"They were hot about paying that tax for 13 years and not seeing anything. ... It's like beating your head against the wall," he said.
"This has never been a priority for the Corps of Engineers," and if the federal government isn't going to help it "should get the hell out of the way" so locals and the state can make a plan.
But state Rep. Valerie Hodges was critical of Louisiana officials as well. After floods in March, which largely spared the Amite basin, someone from the Department of Transportation and Development wondered aloud if the diversion canal was even necessary.
"Are you in the Twilight Zone? Because that's insane. ... I wonder what they think now?" she said.
“I would love to know … how many homes could have been saved,” said Hodges, who took four feet of water to her Denham Springs-area home and lost two vehicles and a “lifetime” of photographs. “We can’t take these kind of chances. … This never should have happened.”