Sunday storm strained Baton Rouge drainage, officials say | News

More than 7 inches of rain in some parts of Baton Rouge on Sunday closed roads and turned fields into lakes, but the city was largely spared home flooding.

Rainfall over the course of about 12 hours was more than Baton Rouge’s average January rainfall, said National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Efferson.

Despite the flooding, city council officials say the stormwater system has generally been able to handle the downpours due to recent investment in drainage maintenance.

“We’re very glad we cleaned up the system as much as we did because it certainly improved drainage,” said Mark Armstrong, spokesman for the borough.

The borough was aware Tuesday of about five houses that had taken some water from the flash floods, said Fred Raiford, the borough’s director of transport and drainage.

American Rescue Plan Act funds were used to remove 23 million pounds of debris from 80 miles of storm drains and clear Bayou Manchac and parts of Claycut Bayou and Ward’s Creek, Armstrong said. That work began in June 2021, a month after more than 1,000 homes were flooded when 14 inches of rain fell in the southeast corner of the community in a matter of hours.

Stormwater infrastructure had previously fallen into a state of neglect, and the borough had a more than 3-year backlog of maintenance requests before the federal funds arrived. Cleaning the pipes and storm boxes will allow water to drain off city streets more quickly, Raiford said.

Residents and Metro Council members called for more urgency in solving drainage problems after the May 2021 flood, and $56 million of the community’s one-time ARPA allocation has since been used for drainage work.

However, some residents affected by the local flooding on Sunday said the municipality’s efforts had not affected the flooding badly enough.

Jason Broha, who lives in a home on Park Boulevard near Cherokee Street, said he was unable to leave his Garden District home for about three hours Sunday due to flash flooding.

Garden District residents have complained for years that heavy rains have swamped the neighborhood, swamping cars and damaging homes.

Broha has only lived in the neighborhood since last April, but he said Sunday’s flood was the second time his family had been trapped in their home due to flooding.

“What’s happening out there on our streets is really unsustainable,” Broha said. “We will lose part of the Garden District if this continues. I’m not asking for perfection, but I’m asking for a solution and I don’t see any.”

Drainage maintenance performed by the borough so far has improved drainage systems in neighborhoods like the Garden District, Raiford said, but infrastructure in Baton Rouge’s older neighborhoods is being stressed by the heavier rain events of recent years due to climate change.

“We’ve had more intense rains for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been here for 37 years,” Raiford said. “I don’t remember the volume and intensity of the rain we get.”

His comments align with experts and engineers who say drainage systems are designed for specific storm events, and if they were designed even 10 to 15 years ago, they’re already out of date given the intensity of the storms residents are now seeing.

The maintenance work, conducted with ARPA funds, is intended to be only a short-term fix while the borough prepares to take on larger projects that officials hope will significantly reduce the risk of flooding throughout the community, Armstrong said.

Since maintenance began, the borough has presented its Stormwater Master Plan and the Metro Council approved it last month. The new rules for developers recommended in the plan significantly raise the flood standards that developers must build to. The plan also includes dozens of capital improvement projects that the municipality plans to fund with state and federal grants.

“We are adapting to a community that is experiencing climate change and a community that is experiencing changes in drainage and water management over the years,” Armstrong said. “We are adapting and tackling it like never before. These are big, big investments in infrastructure.”

As the borough continues its work, the rain continues to fall on the Baton Rouge area.

The municipality warned on Tuesday that the region could experience more street flooding on Thursday. Only 1 to 2 inches of rain is currently forecast, but the community’s waterways are already full of rain last week and Sunday. According to a press release, the city council is distributing sandbags at eight different locations ahead of the rain, which can be viewed at https://gis.brla.gov/emergency.

The master plan’s 20-year capital improvement plan may not be fast enough for many residents as the community braces for more heavy rains later this week.

“If it takes years, we won’t see it again,” Broha said. “We cannot be for our sanity and well-being.”

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