The Vermilion River was lowered ahead of Barry. It looks like that worked.

The gist: Pumps that feed fresh water into the Vermilion River were stopped days ahead of Tropical Storm Barry’s landfall. Combined with a lucky north wind, ad hoc flood control efforts lowered the Vermilion by more than a foot, potentially avoiding major flood damage along the bayou. 

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The river sat 18” lower than normal when the rains started. Consequently, the river’s crest — the flood height, essentially — was close to 2 feet lower than projected ahead of the storm. You can thank the wind and the folks at the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District for that, according to regional officials and local advocates. Harold Schoeffler, a Sierra Club advocate who has pushed regional politicos to get the Vermilion River dredged, lobbied the freshwater district to step in and stop the pumps. On July 8, the district followed through, a step it normally takes ahead of major storms, but not with this much forewarning.

“It wasn’t something we haven’t always done in the past,” Teche-Vermilion Executive Director Donald Sagrera tells me. “It’s just that this time we had the warning.” 

It’s tough to say how much damage was prevented. Flooding is localized and hydrology can be complicated. Sagrera gives much more credit to the wind than the intervention, but Acadiana Planning Commission Chairman and St. Landry Parish President Bill Fontenot, who had a hand in authorizing the move, says stopping the pumps likely made a big difference for homes along the bayou. 

“The stages would have been higher,” Fontenot says of conditions if the freshwater district had not moved. “I think overall the elevations in the system would have been higher. As much as a foot. That could have impacted who knows how many homes and how much property damage.”  

What difference does a foot make? If you’re along the river, a lot. It only takes a couple of inches to ruin a home. And to be sure, homes still flooded in areas around Lafayette Parish. Whether dredging the Vermilion, thereby lowering the river long term, is the right solution is a question Fontenot believes ought to be studied. Widening the channel could have unintended consequences that worsen flooding in other areas. “It’s a lot more complicated,” Fontenot tells me. 

Flooding here and flooding there. How to manage stormwater will vary by address. While lowering the Vermilion impacts the water level of upland coulees and ditches, it’s not a slam dunk that fixing the Vermilion will save homes that flood from overtopped coulees. There’s even some question whether dredging the Vermilion would prevent flooding whatsoever, given the sheer volume of water entering drainage systems from intensifying rainfall and development runoff. 

“There’s no the drainage problem. There are several,” UL geosciences professor Gary Kinsland tells me. Kinsland has studied the Vermilion for years, authoring a paper on the impact of urbanization. Kinsland calls the preventative measures taken by the fresh water district a “no-brainer,” but warns against angling for a singular solution. “There is no silver bullet,” he says. 

Why this matters. Stormwater management is everything in Lafayette now, and we’re facing down an election season. While we’ve begun to address the problem regionally, the anxieties created by the floods of 2016 reopen with each looming storm. How to fix the problem will frame much of this year’s political debates, and tackling the Vermilion is a big part of that discussion.  

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A Medusa for #metoo

In her new show at AcA, Bosnian artist Lala Raščić, has remade Medusa, giving mythological the monster a second act as a feminist hero.

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It started with Drag Queen Story Time

The energy to create PFLAG Lafayette, a new chapter of the national LGBTQ+ support organization, started when the culture war hit home last year. Just a short time after launching, the coalition is already making noise, forcing a public conversation about who gets seen and heard.

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Louisiana Supreme Court ends charter amendment legal challenge

The gist: Just a week after receiving writ applications, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined to take up a suit that put the creation of separate city and parish councils in doubt. The decision, communicated Wednesday, effectively shuts down the legal challenge by a council candidate and the secretary of state. 

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“From the very beginning we were confident that this would be the outcome,” Fix the Charter organizer Kevin Blanchard tells me. Blanchard says he was informed of the writ denial by his attorneys, who inquired with the Louisiana Supreme Court. “The idea that a typo would throw out the result of an entire election is a little bit ridiculous. The important thing is that people remember what this election was about back in December. It’s about fair representation, it’s about protecting LUS, and what we really all need to focus on now is the transition work. The work is not over.” 

Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos that, if not corrected, would have left some voters without representation. The City-Parish Council fixed those discrepancies by ordinance, drawing a legal challenge by a local businessman, who is also running for a parish council seat. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin joined that suit, which was ultimately dismissed at district court and affirmed by an appeals court.  

The supreme court’s denial ends a months long legal dispute that was prosecuted confidently in the media by Attorney General Jeff Landry. He chastised LCG attorneys and dismissed a memo they produced making a legal case that supported the change ordinance. A contradictory legal opinion issued by his office formed the basis of the suit against Lafayette Consolidated Government. 

“Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, but that does not mean that all opinions are entitled to equal weight,” Landry wrote in a March press release. “Unlike the City Attorney’s memo, our Opinion carries Constitutional weight. Historically, the courts have sided with Attorney General’s opinions in disputes (save very rare exceptions).” 

This is lightening fast in legal terms. The legal challenge began with a complaint filed at the beginning of April. Three months to exhaust appeals is crazy quick. The Louisiana Supreme Court has yet to release a written notice but informed the parties by phone in the interest of speed, given qualifying for the October elections is just over a month away. The challenge was heard on an expedited track. The appeals court turned around an opinion just days after oral arguments. Writ applications were filed just last week.

“I am disappointed that the court system has failed to provide the clarity we requested, and hope none of the longterm concerns we expressed ever come to fruition,” Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said in a statement. “Nonetheless, we have a final decision, and my office is ready to hold qualifying next month for the appropriate offices.”

Now what? The bottom line is the result of last year’s election stands, barring an unlikely move into federal courts, and Lafayette will now have separate city and parish councils. The legal dispute halted transition work, as Blanchard notes. The currently consolidated council is charged with producing a budget that will be managed by separate councils, with LCG’s budget process beginning this summer. Last month, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, who opposed the split and is not seeking re-election, announced movement on creating a  transition team to tackle what is likely to be a politically sticky process. Communications Director Cydra Wingerter hopes to have a finalized list of appointees released shortly.

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Waitr trims workforce in thorny transition from startup to corporate player

The gist: Since going public, Waitr has faced legal attacks from disgruntled drivers. This week, citing efficiencies, the food delivery app company terminated several dozen employees in a move that took its workforce by surprise. 

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Approximately 80 employees are said to have been let go. Waitr has not confirmed that number officially, but the figure has circulated among current and former Waitr employees. A staff segment that worked to onboard new restaurants took the brunt of the reduction. In a statement, Waitr said the layoffs were a “difficult decision” and asserted that no jobs would be outsourced as a result. The company will focus workforce development on technology, customer success, sales and accounting, which remain “areas of growth.”

Growing pains. A blog post written by one former employee based in Florida laments Waitr’s transition from scrappy startup to corporate monolith. His wife, who worked remotely, was among those fired Thursday. His post portrays a callous and sudden dismissal:

They had a mandatory “integration meeting” in which they summarily terminated 80 people. They gave them 5 minutes to collect their things. They had police on site to escort them from the building. … It didn’t matter what these people did for the company. Some of them having been there since day one.

Asked to respond to the blog account, Waitr referred to its general statement. 

Lake Charles, Lafayette and Bite Squad employees were impacted. Lake Charles’ NBC affiliate KPLC is reporting 25 let go. Employees at both Lafayette offices were also terminated, but the number and distribution are unclear. Earlier this year, Waitr struck a development deal with the state, receiving $1.5 million to outfit its new Downtown Lafayette HQ, along with a performance-based retention grant that caps at $1 million over five years. Waitr is expected to deliver 200 direct jobs to the Lafayette market. 

Waitr says the layoffs were a necessary result of its Bite Squad acquisition. Waitr bought the Minneapolis-based competitor last year for $321 million and has since been in the process of integrating the two workforces. Waitr has reiterated the company’s pledge to grow in the state of Louisiana.

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Appeals court OKs ordinance to fix charter amendment errors

The gist: In a whiplash decision, the Third Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed on Friday a district court ruling that upheld a fix to errors in the charter amendments passed to create separate city and parish councils. The three-judge panel, which heard oral arguments Wednesday, ruled against a legal challenge brought by a council candidate and the secretary of state.

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The case is likely headed to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The supreme court can choose not to hear the case, which would bring the legal challenge to a halt. Given a dissenting opinion on the appeals court panel, the supreme court will probably take up the matter, says Gary McGoffin, an attorney representing private citizens who joined the case in support of challenged fix.

You can read the decision here.

Get caught up, quickly: Last year, voters said yes to creating separate city and parish councils. The proposition included some typos that, left in error, would leave some voters without representation. The City-Parish Council fixed those discrepancies by ordinance, drawing a legal challenge. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin joined that suit, which was ultimately dismissed at district court. Friday’s decision moves the matter on to the supreme court.

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The future of work can still be human, if coding camps like this can make it more female

Encouraging more girls to get into computer science and robotics can help fill a growing employment gap. This summer camp is part of that effort.

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Don’t call the Pride Month failure a setback, advocates say

Getting Lafayette to formally recognize Pride month would have been a win for the local queer community. Supporters say the loss stings but wasn’t quite unexpected.

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Councilman proposes temporary parishwide sales tax for drainage

The gist: Spurred by a spike in flooded homes in his district, Councilman Pat Lewis has moved to put a quarter cent sales tax, assessed parishwide, before voters this fall. Public notice of the new tax will be offered at Tuesday’s City-Parish Council meeting. The council would vote in July on calling a fall election.  

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The sales tax would generate roughly $13 million annually. Lewis tells me he’d like to pursue a federal match to increase the buying power of the funds. Dollars generated from the tax would accelerate the current deferred maintenance program initiated by the Robideaux administration, he says, and go to new projects not included on that list. The tax would sunset after five years.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Lewis says. “In the last flood there’s areas that never flooded before in 30 or 40 years.” Lewis represents Downtown and a large chunk of the northern limits of the city and the parish, portions of which saw increased flood activity in this month’s squall, the third 100-year rain event in the last three years.

Drainage currently receives $10 million each year after a 2017 rededication of the combined public health and mosquito control property tax shifted $2.5 million in new money over to an existing millage. That proposition, a brainchild of Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, also produced a one-time $9 million transfer to kick-start the first 27 of 77 deferred maintenance projects.

Another one-time transfer of $8 million, out of the parish library system’s fund balance, is before voters this fall. There is roughly $32 million in projects on the maintenance program’s full work list of projects. LCG’s public works department has estimated an overhaul of the parishwide stormwater management system could cost between $500 million and $875 million.  

At least one council member won’t support the sales tax, saying it’s not a long-term solution to an ongoing problem. Councilman Jay Castille says the parish’s massive drainage issues would be best addressed through a millage. “The millage we have in place needs to be increased,” Castille maintains. “In five years when you’re out of money, what do you do, ask voters for another tax?”

What to watch for: Whether a recently tax-averse electorate will pay more for better drainage. Lewis’ proposition faces an uphill battle given the political climate around government spending. Many voters and candidates advocate that enough drainage funding can be obtained by shifting money out of services like the public library system. Others believe only more revenue can accomplish a comprehensive fix. How to pay for better drainage, coming hot on the heels of another big rain this year, will figure prominently in parish elections across the board.  

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Food summit organizers want to mend broken links in the food chain

The inaugural South Louisiana Food Summit aims to fix communication gaps among farmers, restaurants and policy makers over a two-day slate of site visits and panels.

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Overnight downpour floods streets and homes in Lafayette areas spared in 2016

The gist: Intense rainfall hovered over central Lafayette neighborhoods, raising waters from drainage systems into homes that haven’t taken water in decades and onto streets that stayed relatively dry in 2016.

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Residents in the Saint Streets, LaPlace, McComb-Veazey, Freetown and elsewhere reported flooding in the streets, and homes in some cases, though not nearly as widespread as the floods of August 2016. A branch of Coulee Mine overtopped south of West St. Mary Boulevard, pouring water into some homes near the concrete-lined channel. Pop’s Poboys in Downtown Lafayette took on water for the seventh time since opening in 2015. Carpe Diem and The Juliet Hotel, across the street from Pop’s, flooded for the first time in recent memory.

A woman was rescued from a car trapped at the bottom of an underpass near Downtown in the early morning. Firefighters busted out the back window of her white SUV and pulled her out, according to bystanders. She was safely escorted by EMTs to an ambulance, walking under her own power. Water levels rose to 11 feet in the underpass, which forms a deep bowl beneath the railroad track. DDA CEO Anita Begnaud tells me that level is unprecedented.

The rain event equalled 2016 in intensity, but for a shorter period of time and over north-central Lafayette instead of further south. Lafayette Parish took 7 to 9 inches of rain between 5 and 8 this morning, according to KATC Chief Meteorologist Rob Perillo. Perillo tells me he expects to see more and more rain events of this scale, calling the intensity a “climate signal” — an event that bears the markings of climate change. Rapid urbanization is careening more stormwater runoff into drainage channels, he says, putting Lafayette Parish at a “crossroads” when it comes to how it deals with growth and a changing climate.

Youngsville stayed dry. South Lafayette was devastated by the floods of 2016, but escaped trouble in the Thursday morning downpour. Youngsville Mayor Ken Ritter credits the city’s “aggressive” work on drainage infrastructure for the performance. Areas around Youngsville, however, saw relatively slower pours than in the 2016 deluge. In a sense, 2016 was repeated but reversed geographically in Lafayette Parish and confined to a shorter window.

By no means do I want to do a victory lap, but I’m pleased with what I’ve seen,” Ritter tells me.

The Vermilion crested for the 33rd time since 2010 and once again reversed flow. That figure points to the impact of development on flood levels. By contrast, the Vermilion River hit flood stage only five times in the 1980s. Flood events have increased alongside population growth in Lafayette Parish more broadly. This was the 6th flood stage recorded at the Surrey Street gauge since March 2016.

Why this matters: It appears the work cleaning out parish coulees and ditches has made a difference. Councilman Bruce Conque credits the work for easing the flow of the Coulee Orgeron between W. Congress Street and Johnston Street and preventing a repeat of flooding in homes along that channel. Still, Lafayette appears to face a more existential problem with respect to stormwater management.

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Millions in state dollars likely headed for Moncus Park, Lafayette airport, I-49 South and more

The gist: In an election year breakthrough, nearly 20 Lafayette Parish projects have survived into the final days of the state legislative session. Pending a signature from the governor, the area is set to pull more than $40 million in priority funding for some long-suffering projects, as well as $150 million in transportation dollars for I-49 South.

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“It’s a small victory, but it’s not the end of the process,” state Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan tells me. Coussan credits an areawide push to sell Acadiana projects to key figures like Gov. John Bel Edwards and state Sen. JP Morrell, the chair of the Senate’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee. Both Morrell and Edwards visited priority projects — Moncus Park and the airport, respectively — in the last year. Big budget capacity greased the skids as the political stars aligned.

Making it rain across South Louisiana. Here’s a list of some of the Priority 1 and 2 dollars (more on that in a minute) earmarked for Acadiana in HB2, the state’s infrastructure budget bill.

  • Lafayette Airport – $10 million (P1)
  • Moncus Park – $2 million (P2)
  • Lafayette Parish Courthouse – $3 million (P1)
  • Opportunity Machine Renovation – $5.6 million (P2)
  • Lafayette Metropolitan Expressway – $4 million (P2)
  • Apollo Road Extension – $5.5 million (P2)
  • University Avenue Corridor – $3 million (P2)
  • Holy Rosary Institute – $500,000 (P2)

Top priority dollars aren’t the entire outlay. HB2 includes more projects than the state can actually fund. Priority 1 dollars are typically paid outright. Priority 2 is for new projects paid by bonds. Other dollars are parked in Priority 5, which is essentially a queue for future allocations.

I-49 South got $150 million in BP oil spill money in a bonanza of riders to a transportation bill that ballooned the item to $700 million in total allocations, statewide. The I-49 money is cash for “shovel-ready” components of the project, not the Lafayette Connector, which alone is expected to cost half a billion dollars or more and will likely need federal funding to move forward.

This marks something of a breakthrough for the Acadiana delegation. Legislators have grumbled for several years that the region has been left out in the cold on state allocations. Some of the items in HB2 are outlays previously killed by Edwards, like funding for Moncus Park and Apollo Road. Insiders say the starve-out was a direct result of clashes between Acadiana’s largely Republican delegation and a Democratic governor.

You gotta commend the legislative delegation,” LEDA CEO Gregg Gothreaux tells me of the haul. “It’s impressive.”  

What to watch for: Whether HB2 makes it to the end of session unchanged. And then, whether Edwards vetoes any of the projects, as he has in the past. Edwards has a lot of incentive to pass these projects through in an election year. Meanwhile, last year’s sales tax compromise gives the governor little reason to be punitive, some state political insiders tell me. There’s optimism that much of the outlay will make it.

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