WALKER — Mayor Rick Ramsey has a pile of photographs taken during flooding two weeks ago that show water swamping homes and businesses north of Interstate 12 near Walker and pooling up against the concrete safety wall in the highway median.
He claims that barrier — designed to prevent deadly head-on collisions — had the unintended consequence of creating a dam between the east- and west-bound lanes that wound up flooding much of his city and other communities. And he blames the state Department of Transportation and Development, which he said ignored his warnings several years ago that more drains were needed to help water flow from areas north of the interstate.
"They erected the concrete barriers for safety reasons to prevent traffic from crossing the interstate, but what they did was effectively created the largest retention pond in the world," Ramsey said. "And this flooded all of Walker and most of Livingston Parish on up to Millerville Road and the O'Neal Lane area."
Ramsey is threatening to file a lawsuit against DOTD which, in part, he hopes will force state and federal highway officials to acknowledge they are responsible for the flooding of nearly 60 percent of the city.
But DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson counters that no amount of drainage would have been enough to handle the unprecedented flooding, adding that he hopes the state can avoid a lengthy court battle by meeting with Ramsey to address the mayor's concerns.
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"I believe in being collaborative and working with our partners to solve problems," Wilson said. "Any time you have to go to court to fight with someone who's going to be with you from now on, it's like suing your wife and expecting to stay happily married. It's going to be very difficult."
Ramsey's photos show the areas on the south side of the interstate -- the eastbound lanes -- to be relatively dry while the westbound lanes are swamped.
"During the 1983 flood...the city of Walker never received any water because all the water flowed over the interstate," Ramsey said. "I begged DOTD 3 1/2 years ago to put additional drainage underneath the interstate to allow more water to flow south."
He said DOTD refused that request.
"They said if they increased the flow of water underneath the interstate, there was a likelihood of flooding houses south of the interstate," Ramsey said.
In response, Wilson said DOTD did install some additional drainage the mayor requested. However, Ramsey said DOTD didn't do everything he asked.
Wilson added that no amount of drainage likely would have stopped the flooding given the the devastating deluge that struck the region.
"I think the fact that this was a one in a 1,000-year flood says to me we were never designing or building anything to accommodate the level of water that we've seen in this environment," Wilson said. "All of the drainage is based on the data we have to date. And throughout this entire event, National Weather Service and others made comments that they can't make predictions because they're setting records."
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He said DOTD couldn't design to protect from record setting flooding because an "infinite number of options" would have had to be considered.
Ramsey said he will only back off of the city's plans to sue DOTD if the state agency removes the concrete wall along the interstate median, admits it contributed to his city's flooding and if the Federal Emergency Management Agency increases the benefits for the city's flood victims — most of whom he said do not have flood insurance.
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The mayor also expects citizens living in the flooded areas to join in a class action lawsuit against the state as well.
It wouldn't be the first time for the state to be hit with a class action lawsuit over highway construction blamed for flooding.
After a major flood in 1983, Tangipahoa Parish homeowners were awarded a multi-million dollar settlement in a lawsuit claiming that construction of the I-12 bridge there disrupted the area's natural floodplain, swamping communities lacking flood insurance, much like this month's flooding.
However, the plaintiffs in that lawsuit have yet to receive their payouts, according to one of the attorneys in the case.
"The state has made a couple of small payments that are being held in escrow," said Jean-Paul Layrisson. "It's very frustrating because we're still trying to collect on the judgment."
As the state moves into the recovery phase, Wilson said, DOTD will address any issues and make improvements as engineers process how the interstate system and surrounding communities were impacted by the recent flooding.
"No way is it our intent to ever prevent water from flowing or to discipline or punish one side of the community over the other," he said.