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Community Agenda 2019

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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Big, potentially costly changes coming for national flood insurance program

The gist: FEMA will soon announce an overhaul in how it calculates flood risk. The changes, first reported by Bloomberg, could increase premiums, lower property values and change public perception.  

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Gov. Edwards launches a statewide watershed management council

The gist: The governor created a statewide office to spearhead watershed management called the Council on Watershed Management. He signed an executive order creating the council at a meeting of the Acadiana Planning Commission, which he touted as an example of regional coordination in water management.

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Coordination is the new black. There’s a growing recognition among policy makers that flood and stormwater management can’t be handled at the local level. Water has a tendency to go wherever it wants, flaunting city and parish boundaries. The state council will, ostensibly, follow a model of cross-jurisdictional coordination similar to that employed by APC.

APC took a regional partnership approach in administering a $25 million FEMA grant awarded to the Acadiana region in the wake of the 2016 floods.

Dredge the Vermilion. Dredge up conflict. The governor’s announcement paralleled news that Congress has authorized the dredging of the Vermilion River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has requested emergency funding to speed along federal revenue that otherwise could take years to materialize.

Dredging the Vermilion is precisely the sort of project that could rile up division among neighboring jurisdictions. Homeowners and elected officials in Lafayette have clamored for the river to be dredged, arguing that a shallow riverbed worsened the floods of 2016. Combined with Lafayette Consolidated Government’s drainage maintenance program, dredging would tend to move more water downstream faster.

“The Vermilion River, to me, is at capacity,” Vermilion Parish President Kevin Sagrera told The Advocate. “When the water comes down, it’s got to come over the banks and go out into residential areas.”

Study first. Do no harm. That should be the more important lesson learned from APC’s approach. If anything, you could criticize the Acadiana effort for being too conservative. Most of the projects are retention and detention ponds that hold water rather than move it around.

Before further work is done, APC has moved to study watershed impact first.

“I’d like to have the science before we do anything else, so we know what we’re doing,” APC CEO Monique Boulet told me.

The commission has prioritized a plan to deploy 230 gauges across regional waterways. Just weeks ago, UL Lafayette created a flood research center. Researchers with the center helped develop APC’s gauge deployment strategy.

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Congress authorizes dredging of Vermilion River Homeowners have demanded work on the river to remove build-up believed to have worsened the historic floods of 2016.

Sen. Bill Cassidy’s office said the Corps of Engineers will release a work plan later this week, which would be the first indication of a timeline for the Vermilion dredging project.

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When the storm comes

Another flood is coming. The timing is uncertain, but the trends that produced the 2016 flood continue unabated.

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