Massive 2016 Flood Still Defines South Louisiana Parish

Jennifer Carnevale’s yard can hold 23 inches of water before her house floods.

She knows because her family has seen the water cross that all-important threshold, twice.

“We’ve measured it,” the 46-year-old mom of three said.

Their home in Country Living Estates, a neighborhood near Scott, first flooded in 2012, six years after they bought it. They came home to 6 inches of water inside _ “just enough to mess up the walls and have to have them all redone,” Carnevale said.

Four years later, history repeated itself. This time, they were there when the water began to penetrate their home. They lifted the furniture onto cinderblocks and hoped for the rain to stop while they watched their neighbors’ homes flood as well.

The 2016 flood was much like 2012, which Carnevale said was “just a regular rainstorm” before water inundated their house and sent all five of them to live in a camper for six months.

This time, 7 inches of water entered the house, and the Carnevales ripped up their wet flooring and began the process of repairing their home again.

“It was just a hot mess,” she said.

Five years later, they’re still in the same house _ their first family home _ bracing for the peak of hurricane season and the anniversary of the August 2016 flood that devastated thousands of families across South Louisiana.

On Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, a typical rainy morning turned into a once-in-a-lifetime storm that would become a benchmark for catastrophic flooding and a constant threat in the minds of residents.

In just two days, Lafayette’s worst rain event in 75 years dumped more than 20 inches of rain across the parish, flooding hundreds of homes and pushing the Vermilion River to its highest level since 1940.

The unnamed storm has dominated Lafayette’s priorities and its politics in the five years since and has become a permanent part of local history and discourse.

Rain had been quietly falling for hours before the parish’s first 911 call came in for a storm water rescue. Thirteen minutes later _ at 6:35 a.m. _ the National Weather Service in Lake Charles issued a flash flood warning for Lafayette.

At 6:45 a.m., the Lafayette Parish School System announced schools would close for the day because of the flooding, briefly stranding some students on campuses. Schools wouldn’t reopen for 10 days.

Rescue calls came into 911 nonstop during the two-day storm. At one point, dispatchers faced a backlog of 200 calls.

“It started raining, and just kept raining,” then-Mayor-President Joel Robideaux said.

“All of a sudden, we were like, ‘OK, guys, we’re gonna have to do something. We’re gonna have to shut the city down, and we’re gonna have to start putting these disaster plans in place.

“It seemed surreal at the time because you just kept thinking the rain was gonna stop as soon as you did all of that. But thankfully we did it, because the rain didn’t stop. And so we had the teams out there rescuing folks and blocking off flooded streets. It was pretty chaotic in the first 18 hours, that’s for sure.”

Susan Connor, 57, watched the Ashland Park neighborhood where she lived, near Ovey Comeaux High School, fill up with water over those few days.

Dozens of homes in her neighborhood took on water. But as the water inched closer, she remained confident her home wouldn’t have any issues, because it had not flooded before in the 25 years since it was built.

“The very last rain on Sunday, it came in,” Connor said. She remembers the time: 3 p.m. “That put it over the edge.”

She was standing in her home, watching as water came through her windows and door.

“There’s nothing you can do but watch,” she said. So she made herself leave. She and her then-husband evacuated in their truck with two Jack Russell Terriers, a suitcase and an ice chest of food.

With water above their knees, they got help from a neighbor with a boat to make it the hundred yards from their driveway to the truck parked on a higher road nearby.

“I could not walk,” Connor recalled. “I’d made this walk hundreds of times, and I couldn’t make it that far.”

The rain had stopped that Monday morning. Flood water sat in her home for about four hours.

Some of her neighbors’ homes held water for days.

Connor returned to mud and worms in the house, and they started removing ruined furniture and drying out walls and cabinets.

“You do what anybody else does; you start pulling stuff up,” she said.

She put a call out on Facebook for friends’ old towels.

“You never have enough towels,” she said. People answered her call. “It’s just the little things,” she said.

After the storm, Connor stayed in Ashland Park for four more years, feeling anxious every time it rained. She would leave work to check on her house each time.

“You never knew what rain was going to be the one that gets in,” she said.

She moved to Florida a year ago for a job opportunity, but she wanted to leave her house in Ashland Park well before that.

“It definitely was time for me to get out of that house,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t go through that again.”

Connor believes the flooding hurt the sale of her house.

“People were just afraid of the rain,” she said.

The Carnevales still want to stay in their home outside Scott, but they’re looking at options for the future. Through the Flood Mitigation Assistance program, FEMA could either buy their home for 10% less than market value or pay 90% of the cost to elevate it.

Hoping to stay, Carnevale got a quote for the second option and submitted her paperwork about eight months ago. She hasn’t heard back yet.

“It’s very frustrating,” she said.

In the meantime, “I just wish they would do something about the drainage out here. There is a ditch that runs behind our subdivision that is full of trash, debris and trees.”

The damage from the 2016 flood prompted a sea change in local political priorities and at Lafayette Consolidated Government, and redefined local policy from there on, Robideaux said.

“That was a significant pivot,” he said.

“It went from (drainage in the) top five to drainage first, then we’ll figure out if we can do any new roads and development. That comes second,” he added.

“We had to make some changes as it relates to drainage. We had to dedicate more money to drainage projects. And we had to try to get this stuff done as quickly as possible, because everyone was struggling so much every time there was a rain event.”

Among the first strategies to become top priorities after the storm were cleaning out the parish’s miles and miles of ditches and buying out homes that flooded more than once, like the Carnavales’.

The year after the flood, Lafayette adopted a regulation requiring new developments to reduce the rainfall runoff of the land they are built on by 15%.

The parish also implemented rules that prohibited new construction from increasing the overall volume of dirt on a property, called no net fill, to prevent new buildings from worsening drainage issues, though that has its limitations.

“The way the regulations for no net fill read is it’s only the new stuff that goes to the Planning Commission and Hearing Examiner. So if someone was platted prior to November 2017, and they come and they build a house, they can bring fill in. There’s no issue at all,” former LCG Floodplain Administrator Stephanie Weeks said.

But the 2016 flood prompted more than just regulatory changes in Lafayette. It redefined the parish’s political priorities and prompted millions of dollars in spending on drainage maintenance and improvement projects.

After running on a drainage-first platform and taking office in January 2020, Mayor-President Josh Guillory has spent or earmarked tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for drainage maintenance and projects, including a new emphasis on constructing detention ponds around the parish to take storm water pressure off Lafayette’s hundreds of miles of coulees.

The effects of those and other projects will eventually be included in a parish-wide storm water plan that his administration is contracting out to Baton Rouge engineering firm CSRS, but Guillory said in the meantime getting ahead of drainage needs is key.

“We’re building a foundation so that we’re not reactive,” Guillory said. “It’s changing the way that we’ve done things internally. I want our guys to be proactive, to go fix it before it happens.”

Even as the 2016 storm has come to define conversations about flooding in Lafayette during the years since, its salience and political importance have made it an unrealistic benchmark for drainage expectations in the parish.

“If your benchmark is a 500- to 1,000-year flood, you’re not gonna get too much done because it’s gonna cost a lot of money, and it might not be practical,” Guillory said.

Ultimately, a flood like 2016 sticks in peoples’ minds precisely because of how much it overwhelms an area’s tools for controlling it. Despite Lafayette’s five years of response to what happened in August 2016, Robideaux said, a storm of that scale would likely still overload the parish.

“The reality that some folks may not want to hear is, even five years later with a ton of work being done, if 20 to 30 inches of rain drops again, most of the places would flood again. It’s just the topography. The Vermilion (River) makes it almost impossible for that level of storm to be dealt with,” Robideaux said.

“The detention ponds will help. The drainage work that was done over the last five years will all help. And it may reduce the number of homes flooded from what that final count was, around 4,000 or 5,000.

“Maybe there’ll be 800 homes less that are flooded, and some places may not get 4 or 5 feet of water. They may get a foot. But at that level of storm, in this part of the country, you’re going to have flooding.”

The story first appeared in The Daily Advertiser. Reporting by Leigh Guidry, Ashley White and Andrew Capps.

Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Topics
Louisiana
Flood


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