LIVINGSTON — Thirty-one inches of rain on the weekend of Aug. 14, 2016, brought the worst flooding in more than a century to Livingston Parish, and reignited discussion on what has been a heated topic over the years.
Maps of Livingston Parish illustrate an abundance of waterways, but not all areas of the parish have the same level of infrastructure to move water in flood events.
Public officials agree unanimously that infrastructure and better drainage systems probably would not have made much of a difference during the Great Flood of 2016, but areas without dedicated funding for gravity drainage would fare better in lesser events.
“Nothing would have been able to stop anything like the 2016 flood,” said Mark Harrell, director of the Livingston Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
“There’s nothing you can do about that much rain in that short an amount of time. Look at Houston, where people said they had never seen that kind of rainfall before ... it wasn’t far off from what we had.”
Officials also agree that the long-awaited Comite River Diversion Canal – had it been completed in 2016 – may have not made a significant difference.
Voters in the south and east part of the parish last year nixed proposals that would have funded gravity drainage and maintenance for two districts which would have covered more than three-quarters of the parish.
The tax proposals for districts 5 and 7 failed resoundingly. The failure disappointed parish officials, but did not surprise them.
“Everyone supports drainage, but they’re absolutely against taxes,” Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks said. “They expect you to do the best you can with what you get because we still have a lot of people hurting because of the flood.
“The last thing they want to hear is something about taxes, regardless the reason, but at the same time you have to have taxes to meet their needs,” he said. “As a Republican and being conservative, I would certainly be philosophically against taxes, but as a parish president trying to meet the needs of 135,000-plus people, I have to have every dollar I can get.”
Larry O’Neil, head of the unfunded Livingston Parish Gravity Drainage District 7, believes he and others who promoted the millage could have done more to educate the public.
He knew it was a tough sale, but he said an earlier start and more education on the importance of a funded district may have drawn more voters to the issue.
“We should’ve been more diligent, and we should’ve gone door to door,” he said. “In the end, it was a vote against the tax. There’s no tax of any kind people want to pay, but people don’t realize that what little bit they would’ve paid would’ve made a huge difference in drainage. “
Another group was far more aggressive, however. Several grass roots coalitions – some possibly from outside Livingston Parish -- used social media posts to draw residents away from the tax proposal, a move which nailed the door shut on the tax measure.
The proposal also drew fervent opposition from the Village of French Settlement, a community of 1,200 residents who endure flooding on a regular basis.
Lawrence Callender, who oversees emergency preparedness for the village, opposed the measure because it did not include the village in representation.
“A presentation was made to us at a Town Hall meeting by the gravity drainage board, and that was the first they heard about it, and they had already picked a board, an engineer and the projects – and none were in French Settlement,” he said.
“In fact, some of the areas they picked were north of us and that would’ve brought more water our direction. We would’ve approved this had we been given a seat at the table instead of paying taxes on something for which we have no representation.”
Livingston Parish Councilman Shane Mack, who represents the Albany area, said failure of the tax has kept his area in the same rut it has endured for years.
“The biggest complaint we have in east Livingston Parish is off-road drainage,” Mack said. “It’s the biggest thing we have and it’s something that we don’t have a lot of control over due to a lack of resources, equipment and manpower.”
Parish Council member Tab Lobell, who represents the Springfield/Killian area, believes he and his fellow council members took a step in the right direction, even though voters rejected the proposal.
The efforts to fund gravity drainage in the southern and eastern parts of the parish marked the first attempt by the Parish Council to create parishwide gravity drainage.
“Did we have every possible facet of it figured it out? No,” he said. “But nobody in the history of our parish in our area had taken this approach.
“I’m sympathetic to the property owners, and I feel they carry the burden of everybody.”
The antitax sentiment still played the biggest role in the failure, said Jeff Ard, District 5 councilman and chairman of the Parish Council.
He said he could not fault voters who rejected the proposal, but he also warned that they should not expect drainage problems to subside.
“Some ditches haven’t been cleaned since the early 1990s, and although we’ll probably get money to clean these ditches and canals, it will be a one-time thing,” Ard said. “We’re going to clean it, but there won’t be anyone to maintain it, so 10 years from now canals will be silted again, with trees growing in it and we will have the same problem once again.”
The parish’s limited resources also block any chance of cleaning areas in unfunded districts, O’Neil said.
He believes residents see the need for drainage, but do not realize that the parish does not have the funds to carry out gravity drainage on a regular basis.
“The need is there, but you can’t convince people of what’s necessary to put those needs in place,” he said. “Plus, turnout was atrocious in the election, so a lot of people just did not have civic pride and wouldn’t go out and vote.
“If that’s the only civic pride people have in their areas, why should we even bother to improve things?” O’Neil said. “It’s a matter of them saying they want it but they’re not going to do it.”
Whether a proposal will go back to the voters in the near future remains uncertain.
Ard said he would not support the measure because, “The people have spoken,” while Mack said he plans to explore ideas to fund gravity drainage across the parish without a new tax, but it would take a lot of time to formulate the plan.
Mack does not believe consolidated drainage would work.
“It’s not a bad idea, but I don’t want to destroy what currently exists on the west side of the parish, which has worked well for those districts and the people of those areas,” he said.
“We need to develop a plan, establish gravity drainage on the east side and do it without a tax, but that will require us to iron out a lot of details and make sure everyone is on board.”
It may take another hurricane or mammoth rain or flood to see if residents would reconsider the millage issue for gravity drainage, O’Neil said.
“I may poll people in the next big storm and get their feelings,” he said. “If they don’t want it, we’ll just keep things the way they are.”
Harrell does not believe one single project will fix the problems.
“You have to grab a little here and a little there and hope it all adds up in the end – and I probably won’t be here long enough to see that happen,” he said. “Look at the Comite project, which just got funding and will still take five years to complete. It should never have happened that way.”
Ricks added, “People will ask why areas such as Denham Springs, Walker and Watson have good drainage, but the reason is simple: They were willing to pay taxes specifically before that.”