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THE INVESTIGATORS: Parish leaders have money for flood mitigation but say process is holding up progress

Updated: Jun. 17, 2021 at 6:05 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - The 911 calls came flooding in as floodwaters crept their way into homes, over cars and across several streets in Baton Rouge on May 17, 2021. Some folks were plucked from their homes in the chaos and roads like Bluebonnet became death traps right in front of the Mall of Louisiana. Just a little ways away from that spot, one man was trapped inside his car on Coursey, desperate for anyone to help as the water started rushing his way.

RELATED: East Baton Rouge Parish: At least 693 homes damaged by flooding, debris removal could take weeks to begin

Caller: “Hello?”

Operator: “911.”

Caller: “Yes. My car is stuck on Coursey in the rain. I can’t get out. I can’t”

Operator: “Where are you at sir?”

Caller: “Hello?”

Operator: “Sir. How far is the water up?”

Caller: “It’s almost to the door. It’s not coming in yet.”

Operator: “Are you able to get out?”

Caller: “Umm... there’s no place for me to go.”That is just one of the more than 800 calls emergency crews tackled that night, carrying out more than 250 water rescues. The scary ordeal was exactly one month ago but the fear remains for so many folks caught up in the floodwaters yet again.

WAFB’s Scottie Hunter asked Fred Raiford, EBR Transportation & Drainage director if it is hard to see folks go through repeat flooding so often.

“It’s very frustrating and I know it is to the people who are being impacted due to these water conditions but we’re doing everything we can to try to get projects out to minimize that flood risk,” said Raiford.

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According to the parish, at least 693 homes were damaged as rain wreaked havoc on the capital area. Businesses were also hit pretty hard, like Mestizo’s on Acadian Thruway. That restaurant took on water for the fourth time in five years. The owner, Jim Urdiales says he is fed up.

“It’s time for action now. People are tired and I’m tired of going through this,” Uridales said. “I’m tired of this whole crap of we’ve got the money.. show me where the money went.”

The repeat flood events can be overwhelming for a lot of folks who live in the area and flooding from a month ago, like on parts of Essen and Bluebonnet seem to happen far too often.

City-parish leaders say in the last year they have been working on what they can, like spraying and clearing ditches and canals to ensure the weeds are not getting in the way of drainage. The real salutations, they believe, will come in major drainage projects like the Comite Diverson taking shape. Leaders say that will reduce flooding by about two feet in surrounding areas once it’s complete. The state and the Army Corps of Engineers is taking the lead on that project and the work is expected to be wrapped up by December 2022.

“We are pushing and pushing everyday,” said Raiford.

Raiford says right now local officials are focusing on the five tributary projects, including Bayou Fountain, Wards Creek, Jones Creek, Beaver Bayou and Blackwater Bayou.

“That’s the first reach that we’re looking at working on clearing and snagging and getting these channels open up enough so that water can move through the system like it’s supposed to,” said Raiford.

Raiford says they plan to be able to advertise three of the projects next month before workers can get busy. Folks who live in the area have heard a lot about the plans and the great fixes that are on the horizon but it seems those projects are always in the future and not right away. Congressman Garret Graves recently called out local leaders saying it is not a funding issue that’s holding them back.

“All this money’s in the bank, billions and billions of dollars and so at this point it’s really more of an execution issue than it is breaking through the bureaucracy or trying to find the funding which is normally the hold ups,” said Graves. “Those things are eliminated in this case.”

WAFB’s Scottie Hunter asked Raiford to explain what is holding up the projects since the money has been allocated.

“The funding of federal dollars that we’ve been able to receive has been in place by the congressional delegation. We are working through that process to get the funds out and do design and get the projects under construction but you have to follow the process that the federal government sets forth because if you don’t you lose those fundings,” Raiford replied. “Heck, I’m not happy with some of the processes but I have to follow those to make sure we meet those requirements or I lose the funding and it don’t take long for the federal government to say you have to reimburse us back all the dollars.”

Raiford also points out the public has to understand what they are up against. He believes even with the fixes in place, facing 13 inches of rain in a handful of hours will always be a challenge no matter what.

”When you have those type of rain events, even if we had all our projects done, certainly it would be a plus but I’m not too sure it’s going to prevent everybody from flooding,” Raiford added.

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