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OPINION | McHugh David: With money coming, wise decisions needed

April 10, 2018
In The News

One year after the Great Flood of 2016, a cadre of delegates from Washington, D.C., brought HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson to little Livingston Parish to view the recovery.

Well, the good doctor probably thought it was fairly little.

His comments at the subsequent news conference appeared the right words to say, at the time, and he vowed that – with help from the delegates that brought him, including Congressman Garret Graves and Sen. John Kennedy – his office would help “clarify the duplication of benefits clause” and end the “red tape recovery.”

While the good doctor is still working up some magical remedies for that piece of legislation, such that Gov. John Bel Edwards had to send him a letter requesting immediate interpretation of the new writing of the law, Carson did send a little gift package to the Bayou State in the form of a $1.2 billion “Community Development Block Grant.”

This particular grant is aimed at disaster mitigation and is being hailed as “historic” because the government has, historically, focused on the more expensive “recovery” as opposed to “prevention.” Score this one in the win column for Congressman Graves, as the District 6 representative has touted prevention as a cheaper method of disaster mitigation.

Recent studies show that the congressman’s estimates of “300 percent more costly for recovery compared to prevention” in his congressional freshman year may have increased to as high as 1000 percent.

The lump sum represents a chance for Louisiana to make strides on regional drainage projects, but it could also cause friction. Why? It’s a statewide funding mechanism, only eligible to every parish which fell under the umbrella of a “federal disaster area” in 2016.

Fifty-five parishes, if you’re curious.

While some individuals may not be surprised, others will get a chance to see just how fast $1.2 billion can disappear – and make no mistake, there will be a mad rush for the money. The Comite River Diversion Canal was on the first “big list” of regional drainage projects to be included in the initial announcement of the grant. Other projects included drainage efforts south of New Orleans, as well as the St. James and St. John area, Ascension, and Iberville parishes.

Now, the Comite has plenty running in its favor – support of the governor; the efforts of local delegates, including Rep. Valarie Hodges; support from the Department of Transportation and Development; and, of importance, the continued efforts to bring in money by Congressman Graves wherever he could find the dollars.

That’s important because it gives the push to the governor an easy sales pitch – we already have funding, this will finish the job, and we need about 10 percent of the pot. The finished product will create a regional drainage effort that will help protect one of the fastest growing areas in Louisiana, Livingston Parish, which has been paying into the kitty for nearly 30 years, and it’s the beginning of a system which can be expanded.

But wait – by rule of the grant, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has to be involved in the partnership?

Let’s hope that doesn’t cause problems, as it so often has in the past with projects that involve the corps. Graves said he believes the grant money will give people the power and leverage they need to push the corps into completing the project.

The corps has, in essence, bullied proponents of the canal for some time by suggesting the project doesn’t fall within a reasonable measure of the corps’ “cost-benefit analysis.” Any answer to the question, “What is a project that improves the drainage situation for the capitol region that rests within your cost-benefit analysis,” have gone unanswered, for now.

Not to mention the fact that the taxpayers in this area have paid into the account for the aforementioned three decades.

So we here in Livingston Parish must hope the verbal support of the governor, combined with a hard-working delegation, will bring home the bacon – so to speak – on the canal’s, well, new beginning and, hopefully, end. It’s a chance to jump-start an area of development the state sorely lacks in drainage – so many projects left unfinished or never started at all.

The Darlington Reservoir, for instance – a $300 million (1980 dollars) chance for both a flood mitigation plan and an economic development boost for St. Helena Parish, lost to the development archives due to grumbling by the corps and a few guys from the New Orleans Environmental Protection Agency office who, according to some involved at the ground level (cough – Jeff David), decided to use river silt from New Orleans as opposed to hill clay from St. Helena to suggest the dam was not feasible due to construction costs on weak soil.

Granted, this was the 1980s – so it was easier to get away with such things – but still, a huge chance for mitigation and development lost to meddling.

Locally, LOHSEP and the parish have a chance at the pie, as well. There is nearly $100 million in drainage projects that could use a boost of federal dollars, and we suffered three natural disasters (tornado, flood, flood) in 2016 – so few parishes have the, ahem, résumé that Livingston Parish touts for disaster relief.

We just have to hope there’s money left.

Drainage efforts in Louisiana are woefully inadequate considering what has occurred here in the past. Many homeowners decided to take the federal buy-out money and released their property to the government, which will remain green space for eternity.

Federal roads, state roads, and local roads combine with new development to put a strain on drainage. Each individual development has a drainage impact study, but what of a combined report? Does it exist? Could such a thing be developed at the rate developments are approved?

We must buy in to regional drainage solutions. We must support local drainage efforts. Local Louisiana governments need to cease with the in-fighting, and stop letting the corps be a distraction.

Pardon the tinfoil hat, but did anyone else find the timing of the corps’ approval of a 30-plus year old project in Ascension strange?

These problems must be conquered. Why? More development has cropped up in the Baton Rouge area than ever before – and yet nothing has been done to combat the normal course of flooding. What if it happens again? Even at a lesser scale? What economic devastation will the state face at that point?