SPECIAL REPORT: Delayed Diversion
BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Millions of dollars in taxpayer money have gone toward the Comite River Diversion project, but more than 30 years later, little to no progress has been made.
It's something that has a lot of flood victims angry because it may have prevented many homes and businesses from flooding in August.
It may seem calm now, but just less than three months ago in a matter of four days about 7.1 trillion gallons of water were dumped on south Louisiana, causing the Comite River to swell beyond capacity. The excess water swallowed up thousands of homes and businesses, including Chris Steele's auto shop on Jones Creek Road called Dipstick Fast Lube.
The shop is now unrecognizable.
"This is where I house my inventory," Stelle said. "All my inventory was lost and this was completely filled up with water."
More than three and a half feet of water got into the business which caused roughly $180,000 in damages and crippling his customer base. Steele said his business is the only source of income for his family of six.
"It's a big strain. It's a worry of how am I going to pay my mortgage." Steele said. "How am I going to pay my light bill? How am I going to pay my vendors? It hasn't been easy and none of those questions are answered yet because the business just isn't there."
Steele said he could not make the financial risk of taking out an SBA loan so he is doing all the work to rebuild on his own, but he cannot help feeling like his business and many others could have been spared had the Comite River Diversion project been completed before the storm.
The idea behind the plan is to lower the flood risk around the Comite and Amite rivers. When it rains, any excess water would be diverted from those rivers along a canal and eventually empty into the Mississippi River.
The plan has been in the works for more than 30 years and taxes have even been collected for the project, but it remains unfinished.
"It feels like the government d ropped the ball," Steele added. "It feels like they let a lot of people down."
Denham Springs was one of the hardest hit areas in the most heavily damaged parish affected by historic flooding. While Mayor Gerard Landry said the Comite project may not have prevented the widespread damage, he does believe it could have reduced the height of floodwaters by a foot in some areas.
"Even a foot reduction would have meant only six inches in some of these homes so it would have impacted us tremendously," Landry said.
When asked if that foot of water difference would mean some homes would not have even gotten water at all, Landry added, "That's exactly right."
Landry said it is hard to believe something that could have made the difference in billions in damages has been left incomplete for so long.
"It's sad when you have to impact as many people as we have, incur $10 billion worth of damages on something that should have been done 30 years ago but you know what that's probably politics at its finest," Landry said.
But it's anyone's guess as to why it has taken the Comite River Diversion Canal 30 years to get off the ground despite millions in tax dollars already collected.
9News took the concern to Ricky Boyett, a spokesman for the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the agency in charge of the project.
"There's several challenges with Comite and there's going to be several challenges with any project of this magnitude," Boyett explained. "I would say the greatest challenge that we face in getting this construction completed is the funding."
While taxpayers have contributed much of the money, Boyett said the project still has to compete annually in Washington for federal matching dollars to fully fund it. He said it is a process that can take time.
"I can understand that you're looking to this project and you want it complete and, trust me, we want it completed as well and hopefully we'll get the funding that will allow us to deliver this key project," Boyett added.
Congressman Garret Graves, R-Louisiana, said the Corps is not being aggressive enough to get the funding this project deserves. In his first year in Congress, he was able to lead an effort to secure money. It is something he said has not been successful in years.
"We went from getting no funds or funds taken to $16 million in about an 18-month period which certainly was a reversal in progress but it still isn't anything near the urgency that we need," Graves said.
According to the Corps of Engineers, the total cost of the Comite River Diversion project is $246 million. So far, the government has paid out nearly $77 million to the project which means it will take another $169 million to fully fund it. The exact total is actually less because the numbers provided by the Corps of Engineers does not include funds already collected through taxes.
Graves is in favor of stripping the project from the Corps of Engineers and instead have control of it turned over to the state and local level. Doing that, he said, is the only way the Comite River Diversion project will get the attention it deserves.
"Projects can be accomplished much faster and much more cost effectively by having a local lead on them as opposed to letting the Corps of Engineers continue to drag this project through their bureaucracy and continue to victimize flood victims once again by delaying the progress that needs to be made," Graves said.
Graves said a better idea of how much more money the project will receive will be known by December 9.
If fully funded, the Corps of Engineers estimates another two years before the project is complete.
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