New pumping systems are planned for two Baton Rouge locations, but Tuesday's flash flood would challenge any setup, Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said Thursday.
"You had a very significant amount of rainfall at a very rapid pace that did not move in a very short period of time," Wilson said. "That is what happened on Tuesday."
Heavy thunderstorms shut down roads and stranded drivers across the parish, including parts of Interstate 110 North, where the water on the road reached up to two feet deep. Wash-outs on the Acadian Thruway, Nicholson Drive, Perkins Road and Choctaw Drive all caused traffic problems in the past week, leading authorities to wonder what – if anything – can be done.
The pumps near North 22nd Street and I-110 are being replaced now, though the cost and completion date for the work was not available Thursday. The pumping system near the South Acadian Thruway underpass at Interstate 10 is scheduled for replacement starting in 2019.
The underpass area, including Perkins Road, floods often and poses a headache to drivers.
“That historically has been an issue,” said Clay Rives, head of the Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
City police and other authorities don’t track how many cars got swamped in the past week’s storms, but they made clear that persistent problem areas like the Acadian Thruway need to be addressed.
“We can’t have that main access road shut down two days in a row,” said East Baton Rouge Transportation and Drainage Director Fred Raiford.
While the state is looking to update the pumping stations, the city-parish is also considering whether it makes sense to install larger storm water pipes, deepen the roadside canals or add water retention areas, Raiford continued.
"Whenever you build underpasses you have to consider the base flood elevation and what happens with water and the challenges there," Wilson said. "In many cases, the underpasses were built in the 1960s.”
Without mentioning climate change, he said, "weather patterns are weirder, wetter and more unpredictable than they have ever been. …You are not going to have a pump system to handle that kind of capacity if a system was built in the 1960s."
Flash flooding is not just a south Baton Rouge issue. Residents reported problems with Choctaw Drive and Wooddale Boulevard north of Florida Boulevard during this week’s storms, though the city-parish is still working to determine the exact problems, Raiford said.
However, officials must be careful that their fixes don’t wind up flooding areas upstream or downstream. Raiford said the city-parish will look to its storm water master plan to decide how to proceed. The report from the first phase of the project should be finished next week. It will look at the parish holistically, while subsequent phases will drill down into hydrological issues in more detail, Raiford said.
The city-parish has also begun tracking storm-induced road closures more closely to help decide where to prioritize spending, Rives said.
The city-parish expects to receive approximately $100 million in federal hazard mitigation funds from the August 2016 flood but has already identified $173 million worth of projects worth consideration. Raiford hopes that if other areas of the country leave money on the table, Baton Rouge may be able to claim their unused funds.
The city-parish was recently awarded $1.5 million in federal funds for pump stations, but Raiford clarified that the money is for sewerage, not storm water.
Some drainage work is already being performed. Nicholson Drive occasionally washes out, but LSU has devoted funding to improve drainage around their campus, while the city-parish is using some credit it has accrued with the state to improve areas north of the university, Raiford said.
Ironically, sometimes construction to update the system can worsen drainage, at least in the short-term. River Road downtown appeared to drain more slowly than usual this week because crews are upgrading drainage equipment, Rives said.
Before deciding to undertake a new drainage project, authorities need to make sure that they’re improving on a design issue, officials said. Often, the system is simply stopped up with trash and debris, making it less effective.
Then there are areas that may never be immune, barring some extreme measure like raising a whole roadway. Asked about flooding on Bluebonnet Boulevard, Raiford said there may always be areas where the drainage system just doesn’t have the capacity to handle storms like the ones seen in the last week.
“Some of these areas I don’t think we’re just going to be able to solve the problem. … I don’t know if we have a system big enough to handle that,” Raiford said.
Often, authorities don’t have time to prepare in advance for flash flooding, as happened in the past week.
"No one predicted or gave us any advance notice we would have that amount of rain in that amount of time," Wilson said.