THE INVESTIGATORS: Financing a flood

Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB

ROBERT, LA (WAFB) - As many people in the metro area try to recover from the flood of August 2016, the State of Louisiana still owes more than $300 million to victims of a flood that happened almost 35 years ago.

Twenty-seven judges, including the Louisiana Supreme Court, ruled in their favor, but the plaintiffs have not seen a penny. The 9News Investigators talked to victims and the parties involved to find out why.

There is a lot of history in an old house that is now hidden behind overgrown grass on LeBlanc Ln. in Robert, Louisiana. George and Veronica Terrio raised their two girls there. They say most of their memories were good, but there is one that continues to haunt them.

"Oh, it was so... It was... I can't even put it into words it was so bad. It was unbelievable," said Veronica.

Thirty-four years ago, the house the Terrios built with their own hands took on 4 feet of water. The devastating event is still painfully remembered today as "The 1983 Flood." The Terrios say the water came up so fast they had to be rescued. There was no way out.

"I went to tie up the curtains and the water was already coming through the walls," said Veronica.

"A little water coming through the walls is bad, but I didn't think it would get to 4 foot high," said George.

For George, the emotional wounds that came with having to rebuild his family's home are still very fresh. "At some point... I can't... I can't... My young brother had to talk to me and move me aside. [He said], 'Look brother, I'm going to take care of it,'" said George.

The Terrios eventually moved to Gonzales, but the battle over their old property is still being fought. They were one of roughly 1,200 homeowners and 400 businesses listed in a class action lawsuit filed against the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) in 1999.

The plaintiffs' attorneys claimed the Tangipahoa River was blocked by an 1-12 embankment. The water backed up and eventually breached at 1-12 and Sontheimers Rd., causing people in what's known as the Big Branch Creek area to flood. The courts ruled this happened because the state did not do a backwater analysis when the interstate was built.

"I-12 is like a levee," said George.

In 2006, the plaintiffs won and the court ordered the state to pay the $91 million judgment. With legal costs and interest, the total judgment came to $322 million.

Their attorneys say Governor Kathleen Blanco's administration made good faith efforts to resolve the judgment in her last year of office, but the Jindal administration never resolved the matter, despite promises to do so. Only through legislative appropriations and the help of then Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater were the plaintiffs able to obtain a partial payment of $6 million which is currently in a secured court approved escrow account.

But attorney Jean-Paul Layrisson, who is still on the case today, says Governor Bobby Jindal reneged on his promises to make the payments. "Basically, the Jindal administration screwed over my clients. Timmy Teepell and Bobby Jindal assured our lobbyists we would have this thing paid at the close of their administration and they just didn't do it," said Layrisson.

A former adviser for Governor Jindal, Timmy Teepell, says he was not part of the administration during that time, nor was he involved in the negotiations. A spokesperson for Jindal, Kyle Plotkin said, "We set money aside in multiple budgets, but their lawyers never agreed to a settlement."

Rainwater says the former Louisiana Assistant Attorney General John Sinquefield did not agree with the original judgment amount and refused to sign the paperwork to settle the case. However, the constitution states the legislature is the only body that can do that.

"You can't make me believe they can't figure out how to give us what's due us. It's frustrating and it's like, are they waiting for all of us to die," said Veronica.

Layrisson claims the money cannot be touched until the legislature votes to distribute it, but that has not happened. "The way the State of Louisiana has treated my clients in this case is reprehensible," said Layrisson.

Layrisson also says Governor John Bel Edwards has committed to helping the victims collect what they are owed, but given the state's current financial situation, that could be easier said than done. Layrisson says if the legislature does not come through for his clients, he is ready to take a different route.

"If they don't do the right thing, we will be in federal court and we will let these bond agencies know Louisiana does not pay its debts. We're not about to quit," said Layrisson.

The Terrios say they plan to hold them to it. "For this to drag out like this, I can't even explain. It's a shame. It's pitiful," said Veronica.

The Executive Counsel for Governor Edwards, Matthew Block, says the current administration will make every effort to make sure the state pays its bills, but says that can only happen when the state is on a path towards a more stable budget.

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