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Drainage Dilemma Officials in East Baton Rouge Parish ask for patience on flood mitigation projects

Even though Hurricane Barry many not have unleashed the catastrophic outcome that was forecast at the height of the storm, Ja’el Gordon says even the smallest rain reduces her to a puddle.

“It really will have a person with flood PTSD because it’s extreme and we never imagined something like this happening ever,” said Gordon.

Just last month she, like many in East Baton Rouge Parish, watched helplessly as streets were swallowed up and notorious problem spots went under. While areas of the city like the Acadian underpass and Burbank at Nicholson near LSU took on water, it is the unusual places like along Government Street that made the pop up storm look like the end of days.

In a one-hour span back on June 6, 2019, more than seven inches of rain fell and more than six tornadoes tore through parts of the parish, sending water backing up in neighborhood with nowhere to go. When it was all said and done, more than 500 damage reports flooded in, leaving some stunned but not surprised.

“The patterns don’t lie and it’s consistent," Gordon added. "These issue shave not just started. It’s unnecessary to have it happen continuously when there could be things done to prevent it.”

Gordon flooded back in 2016 and admits she is still not fully back on her feet. She says what is more damaging than her personal struggle though is the thought that nothing is being done to bring her recurring nightmare to an end.

“When you have to constantly go through that fear, you’re never really at ease,” she added.

Two years ago, East Baton Rouge Parish was awarded $112 million in flood mitigation dollars from FEMA. After submitting a list of projects, the parish would be able to cash in on the money and kick off those measures designed to keep water out of your home. According to the mayor’s office of homeland security, only a handful of the projects they request have been approved but more approvals are expected. Kyle Huffstickler, director for the department of maintenance, calls the process a marathon, not a sprint.

“Anytime you deal with grants and federal dollars, there’s a process and sometimes the process takes longer than we’d like it to take,” said Huffstickler.

The parish has about $8 million set aside annually for drainage repairs and Huffstickler says those federal dollars from FEMA could work wonders. Until everything they have requested gets approved though, right now the focus falls on keeping what they have in the best shape possible.

“However, there still should be something that should be done in the meantime to assist people,” said Gordon. “So it leaves you wondering when do these people actually work?”

“We may not be seen but we’re out here working,” Huffstickler added.

Despite the near constant criticism, Huffstickler says his department is out daily tackling what they can to keep the drainage system clean and clear. They also dig into more long-term projects like dredging outfalls, including one just off Pascagoula in the Gardere area to make sure when flood waters rise, they have somewhere to go.

“We’ve got to keep these systems open and clear because that’s where the water’s trying to get to from the subdivision," said Huffstickler. "Some of those roadside ditches that need to be cleaned, yes, we’re going to get to them as quick as possible but those are some of the things that get pushed off because we’ve got to get some of these other issues resolved first.”

Tackling flooding long-term though he tells WAFB's Scottie Hunter is something that does not just fall on his team. Huffstickler says he cannot count the amount of times crews run across clogged culverts, trash and other debris in the canals and ditches. While they work to keep things clear, he says they could also use help from area residents.

“We are doing what we can to maintain our drainage systems to keep them free and clear but we also need the citizens’ help,” he added.

Huffstickler says Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome and her team are working aggressively to find matching dollars to make some of the long-term projects a reality, all while hammering away on the much-talked-about stormwater master plan to reduce the area flood risk.

“It’s going to give us the data we need to see where our problem areas exist," Huffstickler said. "So the plan’s going to give us the data we need to determine where we need to best spend those federal dollars so that we can best fix and solve the drainage issues.”

“I don’t find comfort in a study. I’m glad they’re doing a study and maybe years from now my daughter will never have to deal with the same thing but I live right now," said Gordon.

While some may still have their doubts, Huffstickler is asking for patience and says the parish is well on its way to truly providing the flood protection residents deserve.

“We’re going to address their drainage issues as soon as possible.”

Mike Steele, communications director of GOHSEP says they anticipate initial project approval for all primary projects to be complete by the end of 2019.

Copyright 2019 WAFB. All rights reserved.

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