In August, residents of southeast Louisiana were left stunned when water destroyed towns during a so-called 1,000 year rain. The National Weather Service said the flooding was triggered by a slow-moving, low-pressure weather system that dumped as much as two feet of rain over a matter of days. But as Della Hasselle reports, others say some of the damage could have been prevented, and that one highway in particular is to blame.
It’s a beautiful afternoon near Ponchatoula, Louisiana. Driving around, the roads are peppered with signs for fresh strawberries, the region’s trademark crop.
The area isn’t just known for berries. It’s also the edge of what used to be part of natural flood control in southeast Louisiana. At the end of a gravel road, a symphony of birds leads to a 20 foot drop-off. A meandering creek below is flanked by cypress and pine trees. Called the Tangipahoa Floodplain, it developed over thousands of years as the river it’s named after naturally flooded.
Byard “Peck” Edwards, a lawyer and engineer, points to the abyss. "This is the bank of the floodplain right here. See that? It goes straight across. These are young pines right here, and that’s a pond out there. That’s where the river used to flow."
That is, until the 1970s when the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development finished Interstate 12, a roughly 86-mile highway that connects Baton Rouge to Slidell. Edwards says the highway created a dirt dam that stopped 78 percent of the natural flow of water, with only three small openings for drainage. So when as much as two feet of rain fell over three days during the August floods, the water that used to go into the 1-mile plain suddenly started flowing backwards, into the homes nearby.
One of the houses destroyed belonged to Levi Robertson, who lives in an area called Robert, about a mile away from the floodplain. As Byard Edwards explains, "When it backed up, it backed up all into Robert, all the communities. Jumped over the interstate, flooded his house! Because it couldn’t get HERE. If it had got here it just would have gone right on down, here it had been going forever."
Edwards, who happens to be the governor’s cousin, says in several lawsuits the state deprived residents of their property, because officials knew the area would flood. He also points fingers at the United States Geological Survey and the Federal Highway Administration.
Robertson is the plaintiff. He said before I-12 was built, his house never flooded. But since, he’s gotten water three times. This time, the repairs were just too expensive. "The adjustor come. And they said the house, just the house, was $75-thousand damage," Robertson said. "That wasn’t counting contents. And I figured that cost me - I couldn’t redo the whole thing this time. I figure it cost me over $100-thousand to put my house back."
The damage was bad in Livingston Parish, too. Rick Ramsey, the former mayor of Walker, says it flooded at night. Neighbors were inundated with 5 feet of water in less than two hours. Ramsey said the town looked like a war zone. "And then trying to find everybody food, water, clothing. Places for these people to stay. We evacuated over 3,000 people from the Walker area alone. And it was an absolute nightmare," he says.
Ramsey also filed lawsuits blaming I-12. In his area, the state had put a concrete wall in the middle of the highway. It was supposed to keep cars from crashing, but Ramsey says it acted as a dam in the Pontchartrain floodplain, forcing water to inundate his town. He accuses the state and 21 contractors of violating law that says you can’t make changes to floodplains that adversely affect people.
Like Edwards, Ramsey hopes victims receive damages for their losses. But that’s not all, he says. "That’s secondary. The primary goal of the lawsuit was an injunctive action, number one, to not only stop future construction of this wall and elevation of interstate but to go in and modify the existing section to increase drainage so this doesn’t ever happen again."
State Transportation Secretary Sean Wilson says the state is studying the impact of public infrastructure in natural disasters - but that the highway barrier is in place for public safety.
Edward Richards, a professor at LSU law school, says many things contribute to flooding in Louisiana. He also says to look at history. In 1983, a massive flood inundated many of the same places impacted in 2016. Yet people kept building, and Richards questions whether the state or federal government can be found responsible for local decisions.
"So one of our key questions is, prior to 83 maybe you could feel surprised by the highway, but post 83 every new building permit in that area that flooded should have been flagged at the time," Richards said.
In the meantime, flood victims wait to see how this will all play out in court, and if they’ll get any compensation after flooding in August.
This story was made possible by the Louisiana Public Radio Partnership, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.