Baton Rouge has a big plan to fight floods. Here’s where it stands

The Advocate

The engineers toiling away on East Baton Rouge Parish’s Stormwater Master Plan said Thursday they’ve collected all the data they need to build the models that will predict flood risks the parish could face for years to come. 

Engineers will use those models to create a comprehensive plan for stopping flooding in the parish, which has become a growing concern in recent years.

“This will have to be a balance between building projects that alleviate flooding as well as policy changes; there’s no silver bullet on either side,” said Bryan Jones, vice president of HNTB, the contractor doing the work for the parish. “We can’t fortify our way to protection, that’s too expensive. Ultimately we’re trying to achieve a protection level that’s feasible and affordable.” 

Jones spoke at a virtual luncheon by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, titled “The Hell of High Water.” It was part of a growing conversation around drainage and flooding throughout the region: East Baton Rouge Parish leaders are facing increasing pressure from the public for solutions to the flooding that occurs any time there’s a torrential downpour.  

HNTB’s work on the Stormwater Master Plan is one solution Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s administration has offered up. The city-parish is using millions of dollars in federal stimulus money on an array of mitigation projects they’ve claimed will alleviate future flooding.

The data and scientific analysis the Stormwater Master Plan will provide will serve as a Bible of sorts, guiding future projects and development choices city-parish leaders will make. 

In her presentation to BRAC leaders Thursday, HNTB Project Manager Melissa Kennedy said the data they’ve culled so far revealed the lowest areas in the parish’s topography can be found in the southern region. Most of the drainage system flows into the Amite River, though a smaller portion goes into the Mississippi River. 

About 42% of the city-parish is in a flood plain, meaning it is likely to take on water in a storm that has a 1% chance of happening in any given year. HNTB says the drainage system just wasn’t designed to handle the increased rain and weather events stirred by climate change.

Conservative leaders at the state and local level have largely avoided attributing increased rainfall to climate change.

Kennedy said the engineers’ work focuses on how water is moving at the regional level, and how that water moves through neighborhoods and even underground when it rains. 

“We can say ‘this is where we are now’ and where we’ll be in 20 years from now and take that into consideration,” she said. “We’ll really have managed development, specifically in the floodplains.” 

It was recently revealed that nearly half of the parish lies within FEMA’s designated floodplains. That has led members of the public to pressure city-parish leaders to call for a moratorium on major new construction.

But officials have been hesitant, so far, to say they’ll adopt one, citing economic fallout that could occur. 

When asked Thursday about a temporary halt on construction, Kennedy said it wouldn’t’ be a topic addressed in the stormwater plan. 

“We’re not looking at a pause,” she said. “A pause or not will really be a political decision.”

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