It will still be years before East Baton Rouge residents see any work completed on the multi-million dollar flood-prevention projects that were launched after the historic 2016 deluge.
Bidding for upgrades to three of the five major drainage canals in the city-parish isn’t planned until July, and things are still in the preliminary assessment stage for the other two, according to Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.
"Work is in progress as it relates to drainage issues," Broome said this week, the day after nearly 14 inches of rain drenched parts of the parish and caused widespread flash flooding. "Unfortunately, these weather events don’t wait for us to finish our projects. We will be working on this for the next few years."
That explanation drew sharp criticism from from U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge. He accused state and city-parish leaders of inaction and finger-pointing, which he said has caused nothing but anguish for thousands of residents whose homes and businesses flood any time the city-parish drainage system gets overwhelmed by torrential downpours — an increasingly common occurrence.
"They hear time and time again that projects are in the works — whether the Comite Diversion or snagging of rivers — but the two feet of water in their homes tell a different story," the U.S. congressman said in a prepared statement. "Normally, the situation is ‘we don’t have any money, and we have projects to fund,’ but this time it’s different. We’ve secured record funding for flood mitigation projects already identified and we secured extra funding in case we encountered new problems unforeseen as we experienced this week."
"These folks should be seeing every penny invested back in their community to prevent more sheetrock and heirlooms tossed on the sidewalk for debris removal," Graves added, "but instead, they encounter state and federal bureaucratic hold-ups with no explanation."
Broome, along with other city-parish officials and state leaders, announced in 2019 a $225 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project that involved dredging and widening parts of Bayou Fountain, Beaver Bayou, Blackwater Bayou, Jones Creek and Wards Creek — the five major tributaries in East Baton Rouge.
At the time, the city-parish was in danger of losing the federal funds to finance some of the costs because the project had been shelved for so long, even before Broome’s administration.
The city-parish had to cobble together about $65 million in local matching funds to push the project forward. At that time, officials said the work would take at least four years to complete.
Broome says the city-parish plans to advertise the construction work for Bayou Fountain, Wards Creek and Jones Creek in July. The city-parish is still doing preliminary environmental assessments on Beaver and Blackwater bayous, which she learned from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would get completed sometime in September.
Another key flood-fighting effort is the Stormwater Master Plan, a compilation of local hydrology data the city-parish will use to prioritize flood protection projects going forward. Broome said contractors have completed all the necessary investigative work of the parish drainage system and modeling of the major drainage channels is currently underway.
"The master plan is already helping the drainage department inform their working group on how to improve drainage," she said.
Had the $334 million Comite River Diversion Canal project been complete, Fred Raiford, the city-parish transportation and drainage director, said those improvements could have prevented many roadways and homes from getting inundated with water this week, especially in the northeast parts of the parish.
The project, also being spearheaded by Corps of Engineers, is a planned 12-mile long diversion canal that would draw water from the Comite River and funnel it to the Mississippi River, lessening flood levels on the lower Amite River and linked bayous.
"But again, it’s taking a long time to get there, but we’re seeing progress," Raiford said. "We push (the state) Department of Transportation and Development and Corps every day on that because it does have a big impact on drainage flow."
Camille Manning-Broome, president and chief executive officer for the Center for Planning Excellence, said what’s going on in Baton Rouge is something cities and counties everywhere are grappling with as well.
She’s also aware of how difficult and sluggish the process can be when federal funds are tied to projects.
"They don’t move quickly and can’t change design (plans) easily," she said.
Manning-Broome said she thinks it’ll take creative solutions, like incorporating more green spaces into municipal drainage plans, to address the growing intensity of local thunderstorms.
Newly-seated Metro Councilman Brandon Noel feels there isn’t enough money out there to fully engineer projects that would mitigate 2016 flood levels. But he also says that doesn’t mean the city-parish shouldn’t try.
Although his district didn’t see the flooding other parts of the parish did last week, Noel was serving on the Zachary City Council when the 2016 floods hit and understands the complexity around federally-funded projects.
"Massive drainage projects are great and we need them, but sometimes the solutions could be as simple as cleaning out drains better in front of subdivisions," he said. "When you have neighborhood ditches clogged with litter and debris, it doesn’t do any good when we have these big rain events."
Councilwoman Jennifer Racca said she doesn’t feel like the administration has been apathetic about trying to address the parish’s drainage issues. However, last week’s flash flooding does have her and other council members nervous about the upcoming hurricane season.
"We’re worried about what that will look like and what impact that will have," she said. "(But) I think most people realize we received a large amount of rain and there was nothing we could have done about it—even if we had a perfect drainage system."