Flood issues need multi-parish action, St. Gabriel mayor says

Staff Report

St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson has seen plenty of changes during his 10 years in office, but last week’s storms reminded him once again about the city’s greatest challenge.

Numerous homes along Bayou Manchac took in water during the heavy rainfall last week.

More than 12 inches of rain last Monday and additional rainfall throughout the week reopened concerns about the drainage issues in the city.

Johnson, as with other public officials throughout Iberville Parish, spent the week fielding countless calls, emails and social media messages about the deluge of water that left thousands of residents stranded in their homes for days.

He said he supports the use of the aqua dams, an issue that led to a standoff between Iberville Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso and Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome. But he believes a larger conversation will eventually need to come to the table.

“I support my parish president on this, but I think the conversation with the aqua dams should, and will, generate a larger conversation about drainage in general,” Johnson said. “I understand the purpose of the dams, and it’s well in its place.”

The area along the St. Gabriel Civic Center and MSA-East became unnavigable during the five-day rain event last week that brought more than 13 inches of rain to the area.

But the dams and the amount of water that flow from Bayou Fountain and Bayou Manchac overwhelm the drainage system.

“Iberville is not able to drain on a normal rain, let alone these 25-, 50- or 100-year events we have,” Johnson said. “This has been too similar to the 2016 flood, and nobody wants a repeat of that.”

In his years as a council member and later mayor, he has seen the issues the city has faced through hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and a more dire issue in 2008 through Gustav. In more recent times, the August 2016 flood deluged most of the residential areas around Bayou Paul Lane and the same occurred two years ago during Hurricane Barry.

The solution may involve a regional delegation, with representation from Broome’s office, as well as Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment and Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks.

More than 12 inches of rain last Monday.

He believes it will take a lot of people at the table, mayors from the surrounding areas and their parish presidents, and possibly the state’s congressional delegation.

While he’s confident that a regional delegation could eventually eke out an agreement, help from Washington could be the holdup.

It’s time to move past the talking stages, Johnson said.

“We’ve had enough talking,” he said. “Action needs to be taken, and it needs to be taken quickly.

“We don’t need to talk about it too long or overstudy it,” Johnson said. “We need action, but we don’t need to do something that involves creating a study and doing another 10- or 20-year plan – that’s unacceptable.”

The Ascension Parish Council at its June meeting will vote on Cointment’s recommendation for a one-year moratorium on residential development.

The housing development in the St. Gabriel area increased significantly during first decade of the millennium, primarily with subdivision off La. 30 that are nestled between the East Baton Rouge line and Bayou Paul Road.

Development has not tapered down much, but Johnson said he’s not sure Iberville’s eastbank needs to consider a construction moratorium just yet.

The construction is not the crux of the issue, he said.

“We’re not at the posture where we need to do a moratorium,” he said. “The problem is that for the most part, our drainage is OK, but when you go back to the issue of not being able to drain off Spanish lake because of the high volume from East Baton Rouge, it puts us at a disadvantage because we’ve been slow to develop because we already know that if we continue to develop, we’re going to exacerbate an already existing problem.

“We’ve already started having that conversation, but we’re not in a posture to halt all development,” he said.

Johnson said he would support elevation of Bayou Paul Road. An elevation of two or three feet may eliminate the use of aqua dams and put that issue to rest.

But the discussion extends far beyond aqua dams, he said.

“We need to have a discussion about drainage in general, and we need to have it quickly,” Johnson said.   

The city has not yet pushed the issue of a drainage tax, but he said it could gain support in the wake of the flood events of the past 16 years.

“We haven’t had conversations about that, but if there was a plan in place and it was explained to constituents and it was a plan they believed would work, I think they would vote for it,” he said.

It’s not only the residents in new subdivisions who encountered problems. Residents along La. 74 – many of them elderly – have a tougher time reaching out during a storm.

“A lot of attention has been put on the new subdivisions, but you have people who have lived on La. 74 their entire lives, and for the last five days, they’ve been displaced,” Johnson said. “They would have to wade in water up to their waists just to get into their homes, and I don’t want those people to be forgotten about.

“They’re the ones who are not on social media, they’re not posting … they’re the ones actually in the thick of it,” he said.

Even as the rains have ended and a drier weather pattern has taken shape this week, it takes a while for the emotional toll to end for residents.

Johnson said he feels the same pain, particularly when he sees the issues his constituents have endured.

“It’s an emotional, physical and mental drain … you carry the weight of the concerns of all these people,” he said. “We saw what happened in Lake Charles, and we didn’t have mass scale flooding like that, but my people don’t care about what happened in Lake Charles -- it’s about what happening to them right now.

“You have to be able to talk to them about what they’re going through. Even if you can’t help them, you have to just sit there, listen to them and sometimes take the abuse and assure them that we here with them,” Johnson said. “During the last week, I may have slept two or three hours every night.

“You’re constantly going through the day, talking to people, trying to stay up to date on the weather conditions,” he said. “You’re scared to sleep because you fear something else may happen. It takes a toll.”