Alexandria City Council relunctantly approves $500,000 to study levee problem

By Bill Sumrall
The Light

The Alexandria City Council approved kicking in $500,000 to launch an effort to counter decertification of area levees despite some reservations that the city was the only governmental entity spending money on the problem.

Discussion during Legal Committee meeting focused on how this crisis evolved and whether the city would recoup its expenses in addressing it.

“My concern is, how did we get to this point with problems with our levees?” asked Council President Roosevelt Johnson.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are in the process of drawing floodplain maps which local officials say would result in disastrous financial consequences for city and parish residents and businesses.

Since Hurricane Katrina, FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have revised levee and floodplain guidelines, officials say, which expanded 100-year floodplains but caused loss of levee certification, which would increase flood insurance premiums and adversely affect property development.

The problem and its impact highlighted a Feb. 24 historic tri-governmental meeting of Alexandria, Pineville and Rapides Parish elected officials.

“How we came to be here is both a large scale political problem with the Corps and FEMA as well as a problem of ensuring public safety,” Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy said.

The Red River, Atchafalaya & Bayou Boeuf (RRABB) Levee District that serves Avoyelles, Rapides and St. Landry parishes is charged in the state constitution with overseeing the levees along the Red River here.

While lacking jurisdiction over the levees involved, “from day one, we have taken as much of an interest in this process as has (Pineville) Mayor (Clarence) Fields and (President) Richard Billings at the (police) jury because we can’t afford to leave this issue up to any one body,” Roy said.

“We are the most affected by any negative or inimitable effects of remapping or a flood. The city of Alexandria is the most affected and that is why we have suggested to you that there is a legislative lead we need to take,” Roy said.

“This is most assuredly an emergency in the sense that property and lives could be affected by the decisions we make,” Roy said.

Lengthy discussion ensued. At one point, District 1 Councilman Edward Larvadain III,  who did not attend the Feb. 24 joint meeting because he said he was in court that day, complained about the half-million dollar costs for addressing the issue.

Roy said he is not asking for funds to fix the levees, just to investigate where any physical problems arise.

This is expected to head off FEMA arbitrarily redrawing floodplain maps which could result in property owners being required to buy flood insurance with increased premiums in the thousands of dollars.

Other parish governmental entities involved lack the funding altogether to address the issue in time, the mayor said. “We need to act,” Roy said. “We need to have staff in place to see what needs to be fixed.”

Councilman Myron Lawson said he’d like to see other governmental entities “with skin in the game.”

Roy assured Lawson and Larvadain that capital funds, not operational funds, would be used. The mayor added that if they wait until FEMA remaps “and you’re on the other side of a FEMA appeal, you’ve lost it.”

Roy said that only $100,000 would be initially spent researching levee problems, with any remaining $400,000 in costs pending Council approval as needed.

Councilman Harry Silver said that as far as funds coming from the city of Pineville and the Rapides Parish Police Jury, “their cupboard is totally bare.”

Councilman Everett Hobbs also raised concerns about Alexandria footing the bill.

Councilman Jonathan Goins said this is an important issue for his district.

Councilman Chuck Fowler said the threat of an adverse change in the floodplain has already affected negotiations to attract one potential industrial prospect.

The Legal Committee referred the matter to the full Council, which passed it on motion by Silver, seconded by Fowler.

In another matter, Johnson expressed concern about public safety from unboarded structures, saying that a lot of abandoned houses become drug havens.

Kay Michiels, chief operating officer and director of planning, said that “boarding up is a problem,” as funds to secure commercial structures are lacking but they are focusing on residential structures.

A report on the condemnation of abandoned houses cited 17 were demolished by the city and four by the owner; six were rehabilitated by the owner while 13 await a condemnation hearing, and five are currently under construction by owner.

In addition, the report cited 34 structures in various stages of the condemnation process.

During the public comment period, Richard Quinney of Alexandria  protested the proposed location of a walking trail behind residential housing in the Deerfield subdivision, citing safety and traffic concerns for residents or walkers who might be robbed or injured.

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