Story By Brad Goins • Photos By James Welch
Shortly after 8:30 am on Saturday, April 30, your faithful correspondent was headed out to pick up a friend who was getting off work. I took a break from the deluge to gas up at Shop-A-Lot.
At the store, I ran into a city worker who’s long been a Shop-A-Lot regular. He strongly suggested I stop my drive and head straight home.
He told me 18th Street was — at that moment — covered with the worst flooding he’d ever seen on the street. He said each vehicle that moved down the street pushed water over the curb on both sides. That was something he’d never seen before.
I ignored him at first, as I knew my friend needed a ride. So I drove ahead.
But only for a few feet. There was no denying that my small sedan (a Cobalt) was no match for the depth of the water in the street. I pulled over into the Social Security building parking lot, took a few deep breaths and headed home.
A FLOOD OF COMPLAINTS
According to Weather Underground, at one Lake Charles weather station, a total of 3.4 inches of rain fell on Saturday, April 30 — most of it in a few hours in the morning.
The next day — Sunday, May 1 — another 5.2 inches fell. Both totals set local records for the day in question.
The 5 inches of rain generated 500 complaints by local residents in local social media. Why, citizens asked, were they unable to drive around their cities and towns just because there’d been a heavy rain?
And it wasn’t just citizens who were teed off. In a Facebook post, Police Juror Nic Hunter wrote, “We have a drainage crisis in Calcasieu Parish.”
Another police juror, Kevin White, wrote on April 30, “I’ve seen places with water where I haven’t seen [it] before.” (And keep in mind, that statement was made after a rain of only 3 inches had fallen that morning.)
Drawing particular attention was a series of Facebook posts about local flooding by artist Candice Alexander. Her posted text included these comments:
“Maybe that ridiculous idea for a hurricane museum and $3 household tax would stretch longer if we were smart enough in this city to fix our drainage problems …
“It’s gonna rain again. Make sure you run your errands now before you can’t use most of the public streets in Lake Charles.
“It’s not normal to NOT be able to drive in a city when a rain storm comes. I’m sorry. This ‘normal’ idea that some can’t even leave their own homes when it rains is NOT normal.
“… Fix the problem so residents don’t have to stand in the rain waving for passersby to NOT drive down the road. It blows my mind …
“I know I’m not the only one who notices this. When will everyone come together and have a large enough voice to be the change? I don’t know about everyone else, but in 6 years living downtown, I have yet to see it as bad as it was yesterday. “It’s not OK to see a Jeep floating by from your window.”
That is a strong example of the voice of the citizen. But those in positions of official power were quite aware of citizen discontent about the flooded roads. Shortly after noon on April 30, Police Juror Judd Bares posted this telling comment:
“I COMPLETELY [his emphasis] understand that the rain has a lot of folks frustrated today …”
The complaints were widespread and vocal enough to attract attention in high places. But were the complaints warranted? And if they were, what are the problems that policy makers need to address?
THE GOVERNING OF DRAINAGE
As a police juror, Hunter was in the rare position of being able to address the ways in which government and bureaucracy were affecting local drainage in 2016. He wrote:
“In Calcasieu Parish, we have seven independent Gravity and Drainage Districts; that’s right … seven districts all with their own boards (five members each), superintendents, staffs, and equipment. We have taken a natural watershed that God has devised and cut it up in seven districts, many with boundaries that follow no waterways or watershed.
“These man-made, straight lines drawn on the map have set up artificial ‘drainage walls,’ where a citizen may be lucky to live on one side of the street with a drainage district that is sufficiently funded and their neighbor across the street live in a drainage district that is not sufficiently funded.
“Add these drainage board members to the 15 police jurors we have and the dozens of city council members from cities and we have over 50 independent minds with their own visions for drainage improvement.”
With so many officials working on a problem that sparks such intense emotions, is a comprehensive solution a realistic option? What about consolidation? Can consolidation really work when so many fingers are in the pie?
Hunter notes that in the past, Calcasieu Parish has effectively used consolidation to solve problems related to the library systems, roads, mosquito control and juvenile justice.
What would prevent consolidation from solving — or at least improving — the problem of sudden and extreme flooding of local streets? Hunter sees a risk in “sectionalism” — the notion that drainage in one part of the area is a higher priority than drainage in other parts.
“Will we act as a unified front with cooperation and a sense of community, or will we deal in sectionalism?” asks Hunter. “There is no ‘silver bullet’ that will solve our crisis, but consolidation is a good foundational start.”
THE ISSUE OF GROWTH
With the boom underway, one can’t help but consider local problems through the lens of development. Consider Alexander’s recent comments on the relation between development and drainage:
“Lake Charles keeps growing, yet the problems stay problems. The drainage gets worse …
“ … The building continues and the condos keep rising and the toilets keep being installed … I suppose while we keep building … the problems keep getting worse.”
Many citizens expressed similar concerns about the relation between street flooding and development. One concern was that new developments might be creating their own drainage systems more or less pall mall, so that new run-off was joining with, and increasing, the run-off that has existed for years.
Hunter — again, using dramatic language — leant an official voice to those raising the concerns.
“Stop the bleeding,” he wrote. “We must ask developers to change the way in which they develop. Constructing concrete jungles and eliminating all porous land on some lots over the past 30 years has done no favors to the drainage crisis.
“Rather than simply pushing excess water into laterals, more water can stay on site.”
He also says citizens who are concerned that there might be a connection between rapid development and rapid flooding can take practical action. “The Police Jury may vote on this in the coming months. Stay active and involved. Let your Police Jurors know how you feel.”
Keep in mind that official plans for the boom are supposed to provide for drainage problems as they arise. The Go Group is the official body obliged to develop plans for making changes in the infrastructure to deal with the boom. In the section titled “Growth Planning,” the Go Group says that it undertakes the responsibility for:
“Requirements for a drainage impact analysis under certain conditions.
“Drainage design standards to provide protection from flooding.
“Storm water standards to improve the quality of surface and ground water.
“Coastal Zone and Flood Plain Management guidance.”
The plan goes on to state that “These issues are currently being addressed by the Growth Planning Task Force of the Southwest Louisiana Task Force for Growth and Opportunity (GO Group).”
BAD OLD HABITS?
Could part of the problem be that local governments have been slow to maintain the drainage options that existed before the boom arrived? Are drains routinely cleared by government workers? Are drainage ditches routinely dredged?
Hunter brings up one obstacle to change that’s widespread in Southwest Louisiana: the common notion that things should be done in a certain way because they’ve been done that way in the past. “Simply continuing to do something the same way because ‘that’s just always the way we’ve done it’ is not a concept I agree with.”
So what can be done? Hunter states that there should be “comprehensive capital improvements with additional revenue to maintain what already exists and to increase capacity.”
He wrote specifically about one well-known area drainage way — “Contraband Bayou needs to be dredged” — then went on to write, “coulees and laterals downtown need to be maintained … Neighborhoods all across Lake Charles need improvements on ditches and laterals.”
But he did provide a cautionary note: “To accomplish all of this will cost a great deal — more than the current Lake Charles, Calcasieu Parish Police Jury or Gravity Drainage District budgets will allow.”
To some degree, citizens can be proactive in this area. Those who see a drain on their street blocked with leaves or debris can take a rake to the blockage. If they’re not up to the task, they can report the problem to parish or city officials.
Regardless of where you stand on the flooding and drainage issues, Hunter’s last piece of advice sounds unusually practical and potentially productive:
“I suggest you attend the next Police Jury Drainage Committee meeting and let your voices be heard. We cannot fix our problems overnight, but we must begin somewhere.”