Baton Rouge mayor address critics as top officials provide update on flood recovery

Baton Rouge mayor address critics as top officials provide update on flood recovery

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Public criticisms related to the flood recovery process in Baton Rouge were at the top of the agenda Monday morning as Mayor Kip Holden started his press conference by addressing his critics.

"[John] Delgado, to Buddy Amoroso, to Trae Welch to Bodi White and others, who virtually questioned where was I," Holden said.

Although the press conference largely focused on the flood recovery effort, it began with a statement from Holden regarding his decision to participate in a trip to Taiwan. He left on September 5 to attend the 2016 Global Harbor Cities Forum, where he met with Asian leaders about rebuilding cities around large ports and rivers. He said he also discussed expansion of business to Asian markets.

"This was not a secret," he said. "If you look at the documents, this request came from the State Department on June 6."

"For them to put a block in their head and act like we were doing nothing is a travesty of justice," he added at a later point in the press conference.

Holden explained that the conference included representatives from 25 different countries. He noted that he was the only U.S. mayor invited to discuss issues related to the future of port cities in the face of climate change.

"I took information from the Baton Rouge port, the New Orleans port, the downtown development district and our water campus," Mayor Holden noted.

Delgado said he knew of Holden's trip and never felt it was the right thing to do while the city is recovering from the recent flooding.

"The mayor made the statement that we have this talented and incredibly dedicated team of professionals at city-parish that were here to run the government," Delgado said. "I agree with that statement, but you can have the most dedicated and talented team in the world, and your football coach doesn't leave that team in the middle of the game to go eat Chinese food."

"It's hard to overstate the effect of this event. At its peak we had over 5,000 people in shelters that we know of," said Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel. "The mayor has been an amazing leader."

Holden said he was in constant communication with his staff, and he felt the conference was too important to cancel. He added it was funded by a city government in Taiwan and did not cost the East Baton Rouge Parish anything.

"I would caution them, before they go out and make those public pronouncements, to please know the facts, understand what we're all about, understand the benefits that this will have to Louisiana," Holden said.

Regarding his absence from a different trip when some local mayors took to Washington D.C. with Gov. John Bel Edwards to begin lobbying for money, Holden said he was not invited and placed part of the blame for that with Congressman Cedric Richmond, a political rival.

"I am grateful for the state and local leaders who journeyed to Washington, D.C. last week to help me make the case to our federal partners the need for swift investment of additional federal resources," Richmond said in a statement Monday. "Regarding last week's Congressional hearing, as is customary, Democratic members were offered one witness. My colleagues and I agreed to invite Governor Edwards to testify so he could make the appropriate request for the more than 100,000 Louisiana residents impacted by last month's flooding. Honestly, there was nothing the Mayor of Baton Rouge could offer last week aside from what the other Mayors and the Governor provided during testimony."

After addressing the criticism for his decision, one by one top city officials went up to the podium to provide a recap of what each agency did during the flooding and how they are continuing with the recovery process.

Daniel dealt with one of the biggest issues for those rebuilding in EBR, whether they will have to elevate their homes.

"We have not determined yet, at this point, that any houses need to be elevated," Daniel said. "We know there's probably going to be some. We know that there have been homes that have been repeatedly flooded throughout the years in Baton Rouge, and those houses will probably have either be moved or elevated."

"We are activated," said Joanne Moreau, Director of the Mayor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (MOHSEP). "We are 32 days into this event and Mayor Holden signed a declaration today to extend that. We will remain activated for another 30 days, at least, with every agency that has a role in this."

Moreau noted that MOHSEP alone has fielded 15,000 different requests from the public, which is independent from the other agencies such as FEMA, and state programs.

"Our community has a lot of needs and we are constantly receiving donated items from across the country," she added.

Over 17,000 residential structures in Baton Rouge were impacted by flooding. Many of those homes belonged to the individuals who have responded to help those in need.

"The men and women of the Baton Rouge Police Department stood up without question," said Chief of Police Carl Dabadie. "105 police officers were affected and lost everything they had plus 70 civilians with the department."

The story was much the same for the Baton Rouge Fire Department.

"190 firefighters lost everything they owned and they continued to work on those days," said Curt Monte with BRFD. "These folks were out there on the front line while their homes were being destroyed."

All of those homes and businesses have created one of the largest debris cleanup operations in U.S. history, stated  Karen Khonsari the director of the city's Department of Environmental Services.

"In less than three weeks, 630,000 cubic yards of debris has been collected," she said. "We now estimate 1.5 and 2.5 million cubic yards of debris will be collected. This is an astounding number but one we believe to be accurate based on what we've collected so far and what we see remaining."

Daniel noted that the city activated its debris removal vendors the day after the flooding started.

"We knew that it was going to be a tremendous amount of debris, but I can tell you that every day we revise the estimate," he said. "It is very difficult to drive the streets of Baton Rouge and see the amount of debris out there."

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