Comite Diversion Canal groundbreaking

State Representative Valarie Hodges

Wouldn’t time travel be interesting?

To take a step back to the 1980s, and see former publisher Jeff David standing out in the middle of no where in St. Helena Parish, staring at the spot which could have been the Darlington Reservoir – built for a cool $100 million?

To really take in the petty politics, money grubbing, arguments, fights, and debates that surrounded the reason the project never came to pass.

Thankfully, that’s not possible, because most of the time-traveling visitors would have blood pressure so high after that they would experience a wide array of heart attacks and strokes, thanks to the power of hindsight knowing how much that price tag would have saved come 2016.

Congressman Garret Graves constantly issues the statement that the cost of disaster recovery is vastly more expensive than the cost of disaster prevention. That factor has grown to six-times as much, for those who are curious.

And no project exudes that truth more than the Darlington Reservoir.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the project was discussed but consistently pushed away. The Comite Diversion Canal was treated much the same way – constant discussion over funding, permits, land acquisition, politics… the list goes on, but in the end the projects never came to light.

The Comite finally got underway after an infusion of federal funds and champions in Graves and Representative Valarie Hodges. Unfortunately it was never started before the Great Flood, wherein 1.5 – 2 feet relief could have come to Livingston Parish, but the project is slated to be finished by quarter 2 of 2021.

And for only three times the original asking price.

The Darlington? Well, that’s a different story entirely. Despite the fact that engineers are tossing around the number ‘7 feet,’ which turns the Great Flood of 2016 from a natural disaster to a small pain for some homeowners, the price tag has still increased 18-fold – from the relatively small $100 million mentioned earlier to $1.8 billion.

And yet, the discussion remains of a three-year feasibility study – wherein the Darlington is just a portion, and we’re only in year 1 – before congress would even approve the project, if it meets both mitigation and financial qualifications.

Recently, a frustrated Graves testified before congress that the gap in recovery between FEMA’s immediate response and the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s long-term financial solutions for homeowners, which comes three years later, re-victimizes disaster victims.

Hodges asked if DOTD, who is lead sponsor for the project, could begin and the corps could accept the project later – to which she was given an answer that amounts to ‘maybe.’

The problem does not lie with the timeline if that was the required preparation to begin construction – the problem lies with the fact that, after three years, the corps could say the project is not feasible by return on investment, or congress could deny it all together.

Stop for a moment and remember that, if not but for an unusual cluster of dry air near the coast, Hurricane Barry was threatening to devastate the East Baton Rouge, Livingston, and Tangipahoa areas again.

Even the rain that made it through the dry air, which was a relatively small amount considering the total project rainfalls, pushed the Amite up into the 30 feet range.

So Graves’ frustration is understood. The job needs to be done right, but when we plug in these timelines it just doesn’t make sense, especially when the end result could be ‘no.’ Are Darling alternatives being studied? No, they’re not.

A corps engineer stated that environmental impact studies take a long time, as does the eventual need for land acquisition. The second piece cannot be helped, but if the first is true why aren’t we pushing more students through environmental studies and engineering? It seems like the state of Louisiana has a ton of need.

But that’s just it – places like Texas offer more lucrative and consistent pay, attracting some of the best minds in those fields to take on those projects immediately – so those fresh students leave Louisiana. It’s a problem with no short-term solution, other than to find more money to throw at these projects more quickly.

The problem exacerbates itself with local impatience, but it’s warranted. Just three years after the Great Flood, Barry threatened to do it again. Residents don’t have to go far to hear others say that ‘if it happens again, I’m leaving.’ Hodges said that very statement at the most recent Comite Task Force meeting.

These time gaps, whether it be in infrastructure construction or disaster recovery, cannot stand. The longer the wait, the more exposure Louisiana has to another disaster rocking local foundations and sending people packing.

And Mother Nature has already shown she is capable of that very thing.

J. McHugh David is editor and publisher of the Livingston Parish News.

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