Politics Preventing Progress: A look at potential delays to solving Baton Rouge drainage problems

Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The August 2016 flood changed everything in Baton Rouge. Communities long thought safe were ravaged by rising water and issues with area roadways were uncovered as countless homes and businesses were swallowed up during the historic storm.

Just over a year later, many area residents are back in their homes or close to it, but the fear of another major rain event has gotten folks, including city leaders, laser-focused on finding a way to fix those issues and limit another storm's impact on the region.

In September, the city called on engineering firm, HNTB Corporation, to draft the stormwater master plan, a comprehensive study of the region, to identify how best to move forward with new development projects built in places at-risk for flooding.

"I want to make it better for the community, but I also want to be sure that it's based on technical evaluation and not just let's go do this because I think that'll work," said EBR transportation and drainage director, Fred Raiford.

The plan is ambitious and will use science to map out how future growth in the city and surrounding communities should take shape, but city leaders say nothing will happen without first getting community feedback each step of the way as the plan moves through the metro council.

"What's important about this plan is it takes all the politics out. It's all about factual and technical decisions," said Raiford.

Councilman Buddy Amoroso submitted a moratorium in October to halt all new development projects for six months to allow the stormwater plan time to develop. The idea though was shot down by his fellow council members in a 10-2 vote.

"I got whipped bad you know," said Amoroso. "My colleagues disagreed with me. I still think it's a good idea but you know I'm going to have to rest on the wisdom of my colleagues."

The council has since made some efforts toward reducing flood risks by approving changes to the city's building code, which is something that has not been done since 1992. Now, developers have to build to a 25-year flood standard on any new project.

"It was a very small step," said Amoroso.

It's a small step political analyst, Clay Young, says has to be met with other action quickly in order to deliver real results when it comes to flooding. He believes the city is running out of time. "I don't think we have time to wait around because we're one bad rain storm away from repeating August and that's the truth," said Young.

While drainage is a large concern, another issue plaguing the capital area is of course, traffic.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome presented a possible fix for the gridlock over the summer called the BTR tax plan. The goal is to address poor road conditions while also improving traffic flow using advanced technology. Despite a major push to gain support for the plan, in September, the council failed to send the item to voters.

Some council members then said it was just the wrong time, while others told the mayor that voters simply would not support the idea while drainage is still top of mind. Young believes something else though may have been at play.

WAFB's Scottie Hunter asked Young if he feels like politics are preventing progress. "Absolutely," Young responded. "The politics are in the way."

Young says if a fix for traffic, which is something that has plagued the city for years was not enough to motivate the council to move forward, then he is afraid the drainage issue may not fare any better. Young believes there are too many scars left over from the troubled summer of 2016 to bring anything else into focus.

"I think the specter of last summer has hung over Baton Rouge for so long that dealing with the outcome of July and August became such a major issue," said Young.

Young admits the BTR plan was not without its flaws, but he believes the biggest flaw for the metro council is inaction. He says it's something that will continue to play out in local government until the city fully resolves any unfinished business from 2016.

"There were things in there that you've got to look at and say we have to do that, but as long as this divisive tone exists, it's going to be hard to get anything done in this town," said Young.

Too often this year, the meetings have gone off the rails and have been dominated by arguments and even arrests. At one point, the council got so divided over a Council on Aging debate that many members walked out. "I've been on the council since 2009 and that was the first time that I've ever seen council meetings get to that point," said Councilwoman Tara Wicker.

Wicker admits things have been pretty heated over the past year, but says it should be a motivator for her colleagues to set the example rather than let division have a seat at the table. "I think that we have to work even harder to make sure that we are able to rise above that because Baton Rouge is bigger than color. Baton Rouge is bigger than a lot of the issues that we tend to use to divide us," said Wicker.

Wicker says there may have been a few uncomfortable moments at recent meetings, but she believes something good may have come out of it as well. "The silver lining in all of last year, Scottie, really is that it caused us to have conversations that were there, we just were not talking about them," Wicker added.

While Amoroso believes lately the council is getting better, he says it's now vital that they get serious about putting those differences aside and tackling critical concerns. "Those are the types of things that I'd like to see more of is that we just put our personal agendas aside and put our personal ambitions on the side," said Amoroso.

While the council may not always agree, both Young and Amoroso say flooding is too big an issue to let politics get in the way of progress.

"At the end of the day, we're all Baton Rouge, and at the end of the day, we've all got to say what is in the best interest of our city-parish," said Amoroso.

"The people of this parish deserve progress... that's the bottom line," Young added.

The council last week approved funding to move forward with the stormwater master plan. Raiford tells 9News HNTB should have something to present to the public in the coming months.

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