Parish president prepared for legal battle if necessary to deploy portable levees to protect Iberville Parish from East Baton Rouge flood waters

TOMMY COMEAUX tcomeaux@postsouth.com

Officials in East Baton Rouge Parish do not seem happy with a decision made by Parish President Mitchell Ourso and the Iberville Parish Council to utilize a portable dam along Manchac Road to prevent that parish’s’ floodwater from flowing into Iberville.

The decision was made by the Parish Council based on a recommendation by Ourso to use tubular water-filled dams along the bayou and East Baton Rouge officials and residents have claimed, the parish president says, the usage of those dams would increase flooding on the Baton Rouge side of the bayou.

During the Great Flood of 2016, floodwater overtopped Manchac Road and caused the flooding of over 20 homes in east Iberville Parish.

Because the road acts as a dam to prevent the water from escaping to Bayou Manchac then to Lake Maurepas and Lake Ponchartrain, cuts had to be made in the road to let the water get to the bayou to drain the area, said Parish President Mitchell Ourso.

“All of the water in a 45-square-mile area of East Baton Rouge Parish drains toward Spanish Lake and Bayou Manchac,” he said. Under normal circumstances, that would present no problems but the August 2016 flood was monumental and unprecedented.

“All of the home-building that’s been done in East Baton Rouge put more of an impact on water coming over here,” Ourso said. “The backwater flooding when we had that 1,000-year flood in 2016 is when water started overtopping our road.”

“When that happened, the impact was the flooding of our residents’ houses for well over 20 days and that water was sitting in those homes that whole time,” he continued.

The effect was much different in east Iberville Parish, Ourso said, than in other areas. In Livingston Parish and Denham Springs, for example, the area hardest hit by the Great Flood, “within 36 hours, it was gone and they were already rebuilding.”

Because of the lengthy drainage time, the decision was made to cut Manchac Road to let water out, but even then, Ourso said, it wasn’t draining until East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes had drained.

The lone floodgate was designed to let the backwater flooding escape Iberville Parish, but parish officials were faced with the same problem there.

“During the flood, the water from East Baton Rouge had to drain before the gate could be open,” Ourso said. “We had the storage capacity to hold our own on the Iberville Parish side, but when this floodwater overtopped the road it was over.”

Despite the unprecedented flooding, residents whose homes had flooded were infuriated, he continued.

“Imagine going in front of 200 and something of your residents in St. Gabriel asking, ‘How did you let this happen,’” Ourso said. “It’s just like going to a funeral and all you can say is, ‘You have my sympathies.’”

“This was something that nobody could imagine would happen but you have to deal with whatever happens – it is what it is,” he said. “I told myself then that I can’t let this happen to my people again.”

“You can never design anything, any engineer will tell you, for a 100-year or a 300-year storm that the good Lord won’t create something even greater,” Ourso said.

Sandbagging Manchac Road was not a viable reaction, the parish president said, because of the length of time it would take, coupled with the fact that Manchac Road is a winding road with dips and rises making it almost impossible to sandbag the road effectively.

Ourso said he had heard of aqua dams, huge tubes that are filled with water at the source of their position and connected to form as a temporary dam. Baton Rouge used the same type device when the Mississippi River got dangerously close to being overtopped during a rare high-water event several years ago.

He got in touch with a representative from a manufacturer who demonstrated the aqua dams for him with different diameters, each creating its own height. Ourso said he decided a 2.5-foot tubular aqua dam would serve the parish’s purpose.

Ourso then convinced the Iberville Parish Council of the need for a storage facility on the east side of the parish to prevent the delay it would create to have to transport the aqua dams. Construction of the $300,000 building should be complete within a few months.

In the meantime – the aqua dams have been manufactured and are being stored at the company’s facility in Abbeville – Gov. John Bel Edwards declares a state of emergency because of the threat of a hurricane.

“I’d been bragging that I had a solution for this so I called the company and told them I needed to get them loaded up on a trailer and get them headed down here in case I need them,” Ourso said.

Not long after the aqua dams were delivered to St. Gabriel, the water started to rise in Bayou Manchac.

“That’s when I decided I needed to pull the trigger,” Ourso said. “If no action is taken and the water tops that road and floods those people’s homes then I’m going to catch hell.”

“Once I started deploying those aqua dams on a Iberville Parish road, I started getting overrun with phone calls from officials and residents in East Baton Rouge saying, ‘What are you doing; you’re going to flood us out,” he said.

Ourso said officials with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) then came out to check on the situation. Not long after, EBR Public Works Director Fred Raiford came to the site.

“He told me he was just doing his job and wanted to know about the possible impact on East Baton Rouge,” Ourso said. “I told him I really don’t care. I am taking a local action and you can deliver that message back to Baton Rouge.”

When the GOHSEP officials tried to delay the deployment of the aqua dams, Ourso said, “I’ve had enough of this.” He then told Sheriff Brett Stassi to contact Gov. John Bel Edwards. “This is an emergency and I need to talk to him.”

The parish president explained to the governor that he thought the whole affair was “a minute matter” and that he was “not trying to trying to cause any trouble. You need to call the dogs off of me.”

“Unless you come put me in jail, in all due respect, the action I’m taking is just to protect my people,” Ourso said, continuing by saying Edwards told him he understood.

After the crisis had passed, several East Baton Rouge and Iberville parish officials, minus Ourso, attended a meeting where the people from Baton Rouge wanted to know if he had if the parish had looked at the off-site impact the aqua dams could have.

“Did you worry about the off-site impact that was done to Iberville Parish with all of the construction that was done at my end of your parish,” Ourso said was his response. “I just put it in the nicest way I could…If I need them, I’m sworn to protect my people, their safety and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“….Unless a helicopter comes to arrest me, those aqua dams are going up if I’ve got flooding coming across my road,” he said. “…I’m not going to be hard to find. I’m 6-foot-3, 310 pounds, I’m too big to hide and too big to run.”

At a recent Parish Council meeting, Ourso told the members of the council the parish could expect legal action from East Baton Rouge Parish if the aqua dams were used again and he said the council supports his decision.

“…I’m drawing a line in the sand and I mean it,” Ourso said. “I have to protect my people.”

“They (the members of the Parish Council) all said we’ve got to do to protect our people,” he continued.