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News + Notes

Guillory’s hole grows deeper with fallout over Hurricane Laura shelters

The gist: In a knee-jerk response to the sight of armed protestors, Lafayette officials stopped ad hoc plans to stand up shelters for Hurricane Laura evacuees with local churches. The decision went viral Saturday when an email to local disaster relief organizations leaked, drawing wide rebuke from critics inside and outside Lafayette. Many read it as a callous denial of help for those most in need — one the administration attempted to justify by citing, without evidence, a material threat to public safety. 

6 min read

Get caught up, quickly: Hurricane Laura shattered large parts of Calcasieu and Cameron parishes and scattered thousands across Louisiana, mostly in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Evacuees have been housed in hotels paid for by the state, in a bid to avoid creating new Covid-19 hotspots out of mass shelters. As hurricanes barreled toward Louisiana, protests erupted in Lafayette when police killed a Black man in North Lafayette. Castigating Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s response, activists have demanded his resignation, openly calling the first-term mayor a racist in light of his policies and his cold and fumbling response to the death of Trayford Pellerin. 

CAO Cydra Wingerter asked disaster groups not to set up shelter in Lafayette. In an email that spread quickly on social media and caught the attention of the national press, Wingerter ties the decision to intensifying protests over Pellerin’s death. Armed men circled a demonstration Saturday, without incident, and both government and protest organizers say activists from outside are on the ground, though there has been no evidence of violence associated with them. 

Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honore led Katrina evacuations in 2005

“This is a serious threat and we must handle this issue before we can care for our neighbors. It goes against what we believe and how we usually respond after a disaster but it would be irresponsible to potentially put others in harm’s way,” Wingerter writes. But her remarks contrast with assurances from Sheriff Mark Garber and others that the situation on the ground is under control. 

To be clear, there are no plans for mass shelters for Laura evacuees in the Lafayette area. South of I-10, Lafayette is too close to the blast zone of the Gulf Coast to safely stand up shelter for families fleeing major disasters like Hurricane Laura, says Melinda Taylor, who chairs Acadiana Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. Mass shelters are planned further north, to avoid compounding catastrophes in the event a hurricane hits while Lafayette shelters thousands. 

“Really, the email was tilting at windmills,” Taylor says. AVOAD has focused its energies on coordinating direct aid like food, medicine and medical care, working to establish a virtual resource center and get storm victims signed up for FEMA assistance. Any mass sheltering plans — the sort that Lafayette set up to receive evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — would be coordinated by Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services or the American Red Cross. “AVOAD doesn’t set up shelter operations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster,” Taylor says. 

The plans Wingerter alluded to involved shelters planned with local churches. Responding to pressure from Rep. Clay Higgins, LCG coordinated with several pastors to figure out if local shelters could be stood up quickly in Lafayette. In an email thread, Higgins dismisses the state’s official response as out-of-reach for most poor families and chided the safety considerations made in light of the still active pandemic. 

“The shelters listed here are pretty much beyond the reach of most Louisiana poor folk. The ones most at risk from a [Category 4 hurricane]. To hell with COVID19. Nobody cares about COVID19 when your singlewide is getting flipped by a storm,” Higgins writes. 

Guillory’s spokesman, Jamie Angelle, says plans hadn’t gotten much further than that. In a back and forth with Higgins and his representatives, Chief Minority Officer Carlos Harvin, himself the focus of intense rage among many Black leaders, reports that efforts to coordinate with local churches isn’t getting very far, given logistical challenges. “Wish I had better news,” he writes. Wingerter’s leaked message follows. 

Intended or not, Wingerter’s message reinforced a growing view among critics that Guillory is hard-hearted, incompetent and even racist. Critics across the state have raked Guillory over his handling of the Pellerin shooting, the pandemic and his canyon-wide rift with Lafayette’s Black community. Many drew immediate contrast to the safe harbor Lafayette offered Katrina and Rita evacuees. Denying shelter was seen as another assault on people of color, the most likely population to be a position to need immediate refuge.

“We in no way shape or form have denied any assistance,” Angelle tells The Current. “We’ve granted every request” from neighboring parishes for mutual aid services and more. 

The missteps are compounding already fraught tensions on the ground in Lafayette over the Pellerin shooting. Protests have picked up steam since Hurricane Laura passed through. Black leaders were enraged by Guillory’s first response to Pellerin’s shooting, in which he failed to extend condolences to Pellerin’s family and rushed to back police. Guillory later apologized, after speaking with Black pastors, and offered his sympathies.

Officials have postured chest-thumping strength toward growing unrest. Guillory has twice convened press conferences with law enforcement officials, promising to stand their ground against outside forces. Angelle points to traffic disruption, a break-in at a discount closing store and some small fires set in the Evangeline Thruway median as evidence concern is warranted. The sight of armed men on site at protests “rattled nerves,” he says, “and rightfully so.” 

“We welcome people that stand in solidarity,” local activist Jamal Taylor says. “You can’t say a black person with a gun is an issue. It’s ridiculous.” 

Activists have accused the administration of overreacting to stir up fear among the city’s mostly white, conservative families. A woman barbecuing in protest in front of Guillory’s south Lafayette home was arrested and booked. Police showed up in force to a fake “Antifa” event promoted by a satire site at the Acadiana Mall, the second such reaction this summer. Before the weekend, Guillory signed an executive order prohibiting gathering and loitering Downtown, which protestors immediately read as an attempt to shut down dissent and others have called an attempt to criminalize homelessness. That order, a rehash of an ordinance drafted by Guillory’s legal department, was in effect as demonstrators gathered around the Mouton statue, ringed by men armed with military-style rifles, which authorities did not break up. Guillory is in a deep hole with the Black community. And, in his responses thus far, he seems to only be digging deeper into it.

News + Notes

Council readies to dredge the Vermilion, but waits for the Corps of Engineers

The gist: A resolution adopted unanimously by the City-Parish Council Tuesday formally urges action on dredging the Vermilion River. Council members and dredging advocates are now targeting funding and political help while the Army Corps of Engineers completes a dredging study. 

5 min read

There is immense political pressure to act. Facing repeated floods and sustained anxiety since August 2016, many residents say little has been done to protect them. Dredging advocates Harold Schoeffler and Dave Dixon have won the ears of officials, most notably U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, and have rallied flood victims and politicos alike to take comprehensive steps to manage regional waters. The tip of that spear is dredging the Vermilion River to remove years of accumulated. 

“The Vermilion River is in a state of emergency,” Dixon told the council Tuesday night. An August navigation depth survey by the Corps of Engineers shows clogging throughout the river in Lafayette Parish, which Dixon believes is the culprit behind increasingly more common flood events. 

LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river. Before the Corps will OK dredging, it’s studying the impact it would have locally and downriver in Vermilion Parish, where officials have asked for caution. 

The Vermilion has reached flood stage five times in the last year. Indeed, over the last three decades, flood events along the Vermilion have increased dramatically, a phenomenon that correlates with population growth and accompanying development. 

Climate and development appear to play key roles. Some evidence suggests that rain events are getting more intense. Researchers at LSU found that southern Louisiana is getting more so-called “convection showers” — high intensity downpours that burst over shorter intervals, often overwhelming drainage systems. Meanwhile, Lafayette Parish has added acres of rooftops and pavement that shed more water more quickly into drainage channels and, ultimately, the river. 

Public Works Director Mark Dubroc attributes the increase in flood events to those rainfalls. Dubroc has questioned whether dredging will have the impact touted by advocates, arguing earlier this month that there is little evidence to support claims that dredging would have substantial benefit. More to the point, Dubroc is concerned that conclusions are getting ahead of proof. He doesn’t oppose dredging in and of itself, but he questions whether the benefit would be worth the cost. 

“As public works director, I need substantive, identifiable benefit,” Dubroc tells me. 

UL Lafayette researchers are modeling the effect of dredging the river. Responding to the public momentum, Emad Habib, a professor of civil engineering at UL, has used a detailed river model to calculate the efficacy of dredging.

UL’s model ran a scenario in which 20 miles of the Vermilion was dredged at varying depths and widths, including leveling the shoals at Coulee Mine and Rotary Point, identified by the Corps’ August survey. In a simulation of the August 2016 storms, the most extensive dredging modeled reduced water levels by at most half a foot and only at the Surrey Street bridge and Coulee Ile Des Cannes. 

“The benefit is not universal in terms of the location. How much and where you dredge” is what really matters, Habib says. It remains an “open question,” he adds, whether more routine storms would see better results. A 1995 study by the Corps of Engineers suggests that dredging could see greater benefit in smaller storms, estimating a 2-foot reduction in peak water levels after 35 miles of excavation at a cost of around $30 million. Habib’s team will run the smaller storm scenarios through its Vermilion model, which includes more recent data and conditions. 

Despite the unknowns, council members are chasing funding. Councilwoman Nanette Cook proposed a $5 million line item for dredging the river in an amendment to LCG’s upcoming budget. It’s not clear how much dredging that dollar amount would accomplish and where the money would come from. Elected officials are targeting state and federal pools, including a $1.2 billion flood control package authorized by Congress last year. Local dollars could be freed up by shifting funds from a handful of road projects and into stormwater diversion, as Mayor-President Joel Robideaux suggested in his introductory budget. An aide with Higgins’ office told the council earlier this month that the Corps estimated the cost of dredging hot spots — i.e. the shoals at Rotary Point and Coulee Mine — to be $5 million. Reached for comment Wednesday, a Corps spokesman could not identify the source of that figure by press time. 

People are tired of studies, but studies are underway. LCG needs a permit from the Corps to dredge the river and will not receive one until after the Corps’ impact study is completed later this year. At issue is whether dredging upstream in Lafayette Parish could cause saltwater intrusion or loss of marshland in Vermilion Parish, among other complications.

What to watch for: The outcome of further study. It remains disputed among experts what effect dredging might have and what the cost-benefit would be. Come December, some unknowns will be resolved when the Corps completes its study.

News + Notes

To dredge or not to dredge: Officials, engineers and advocates debate it while Lafayette residents demand it

The gist: Dredging the Vermilion is becoming a political movement in Lafayette, driven by the trauma of repeat flooding events since the catastrophic no-name floods of August 2016. Studies continue as engineers and public officials debate the efficacy of digging out the bayou. 

4 min read

“Unclogging the Vermilion River is the first step to solving this problem,” said Paul Baker, headmaster of Episcopal School of Acadiana in remarks to the City-Parish Council Tuesday night. Baker’s home along the St. John coulee flooded in 2016 and again during the June 2019 “rain bomb.” He exhorted the council to take action, worrying that officials may shrug off solutions given the magnitude of the problem. “My wife and I live in fear of the rain,” he said, “and that’s not a healthy way to live in South Louisiana.” 

Many now credit Dredge the Vermilion activists Harold Schoeffler and Dave Dixon for driving the conversation. Dixon and Schoefller were behind the push to stop pumps north of Lafayette Parish ahead of Tropical Storm Barry, which in part lowered the base level of the bayou when joined by a favorable and powerful north wind. It’s not clear which intervention — man’s or nature’s — did most of the work lowering the river’s level. Regardless, the episode has given the pair a lot of credibility among residents. 

Meanwhile, studies and stakeholder meetings continue. The Army Corps of Engineers is studying the Vermilion River before it will commit to dredging the entire bayou through Vermilion Parish. A hydrology and hydraulic study is expected to be completed by December 2019, according to Greg Ellison, an aide to U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins who presented to the council Tuesday. 

There is dispute about what impact dredging would have. Some engineers push back against the narrative that lowering the Vermilion would have the impact clamored for by repeated flood victims. Not all flooding in the parish is related to river back flow. Youngsville City Engineer Pam Granger pointed out at a GOP town hall Tuesday night that flooding in the bedroom community is not connected to the Vermilion. Other neighborhoods in Lafayette itself, like Quail Hollow, reportedly would not benefit from river dredging. LCG Public Works Director Mark Dubroc, exasperated, openly questioned whether digging out decades of muddy bottom would do any good. 

All of this conversation is devoid of technical support,” Dubroc said, drawing derisive cackles from the audience. He noted the Corps of Engineers last dredged the river in the mid-90s to restore navigability, not address stormwater management. However, residents along the bayou, including Councilwoman Nanette Cook, claim that dredging effort stopped water from reaching their homes. 

Let’s talk detention. Some use of detention/retention — mechanisms of holding stormwater and slowly releasing it into coulees and the river — is expected to be part of whatever strategy is implemented long term. Dubroc said older developments, built before retention was required by local government, are in part responsible for the extra runoff. He said 4,000 to 7,000 acres of retention could be needed to do any good. That’s roughly the size of a square bound by Johnston and Ambassador Caffery, Kaliste Saloom and Pinhook. 

Right now, spot dredging is on the table. Pushback from Vermilion Parish and continued studying will delay full dredging. Vermilion Parish officials, also represented in Congress by Higgins’ office, say the move could worsen flooding in the area and cause saltwater to invade the low-lying parish, imperilling seafood commerce. That leaves dredging “hot spots” to be the remaining option within Lafayette Parish. Again, there’s some question whether that approach would deliver the solution desperately wanted by many who live along the bayou. 

Ellison said the council could spot dredge now. He relayed conversations with the corps in which officials offered to help LCG get a permit to spot dredge the river. Council members committed to finding the money in the upcoming budget process. Ellison guesstimated that spot dredging could cost $5 million and that LCG could draw the money down out of $1.2 billion in HUD dollars Congressman Higgins helped secure. 

Congress has authorized dredging the Vermilion. We reported that last year. That essentially means the money has been allocated but not delivered. 

What to watch for: Whether LCG moves forward with an intermediate dredging plan. It’s election season, and political pressure from flooded-over constituents could prevail on local officials to take the step. To be sure, it’s not a sure thing that even spot dredging would make an impact. That would take study. Many residents are tired of studies.

News + Notes

Trump and LAGOP formally back Higgins’ re-election, spurred by Rudy Giuliani’s earlier endorsement of challenger Josh Guillory

 The gist: Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a top surrogate and personal attorney for President Trump, stirred up national palace intrigue when he endorsed upstart Republican challenger Josh Guillory’s run against incumbent Rep. Clay Higgins. In response, Trump and the Louisiana GOP officially endorsed Higgins. Giuliani made an appearance in Lafayette this week to raise funds for Guillory

3 min read

▸ Love and war: Giuliani’s connection to Guillory is Republican fundraiser Jennifer LeBlanc, who’s been romantically linked to Giuliani in some national headlines. LeBlanc works on Guillory’s campaign. Both LeBlanc and Giuliani have downplayed the nature of their relationship and its influence in courting Giuliani to Guillory’s camp. LeBlanc was a fundraiser for Giuliani’s failed presidential bid in 2008. It’s worth noting that LeBlanc previously worked for Higgins but jumped ship, landing with Guillory. 

▸ What’s the difference anyway? Both Guillory and Higgins stump as conservative Republicans. Guillory’s campaign planks align squarely with conservative talking points about government overreach and fiscal responsibility. Here’s an exact quote from his page: 

“Over the years, the federal government has grown to a now unstable point. At this time in our history, we, the American people, must do something or we will implode.” 

Rephrase that passage with the flourish of the King James Bible and you’d have Clay Higgins. 

Conservative gadfly Scott McKay has downplayed the divided loyalties, but no doubt that narrative will foam over if Guillory’s bid, currently pegged as a longshot, ultimately presents a formidable challenge to the heavily funded and institutionally-backed Higgins. 

Guillory is running on character. In a wide-ranging interview with The Bayou Brief, he openly questioned Higgins’ commitment to conservative fiscal responsibility and positioned himself as a compassionate answer to Higgins’ “lightning rod” divisiveness. In a twist of political theater, Guillory appears to be positioning himself as an outsider to Higgins’ inside man. A young attorney and a vet, he has the Romney coif of a genetic Republican. (I mean that as a compliment, if you’re reading, Josh.) With no track record in politics, he’s a clean slate with, thus far, none of the colorful personal baggage towed around by Higgins. The incumbent spent the first year of his freshman term making headlines for staging a publicity stunt in a concentration camp and threatening his constituents on Facebook. Since then, his messaging has sobered up, for the most part. No doubt Higgins’ snafus will resurface during the campaign as a way of contrasting otherwise similar candidates. It’s tough to beat an incumbent, unless he beats himself.