Flood debt settlement appeared in reach, but senators balk

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana has for years owed millions of dollars to residents whose homes flooded because of interstate construction work, but lawmakers continue to balk at making the payment, even after a proposed settlement deal appeared within reach.

After the state constructed Interstate 12 across a watershed four decades ago, more than 1,000 residents in south Louisiana’s Tangipahoa Parish saw their homes and businesses flooded or entirely washed away in a 1983 flood. They sued the state for negligence and won, with courts determining the transportation department failed to conduct a proper analysis and its construction caused 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 meters) of floodwater in the town of Robert.

The Advocate reports that Louisiana’s Supreme Court in 2006 finally ordered the state to pay the victims $91 million in reparations. But lawmakers have refused to appropriate the money ever since. The interest has ballooned so the flood victims are now owed in excess of $330 million.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Tangipahoa Parish native, struck a tentative settlement agreement with the families this year to pay out $130 million over a five-year period, while the state treasury was flush with cash. But senators are suggesting they may not need to pay the families at all.

Flood victims are infuriated, saying they’ve been ignored for far too long.

“They’re taking our tax money – that they owe us – and spending it on people more influential than the poor people that lost everything,” Todd Morse, whose childhood home was swamped in the 1983 flood, told The Advocate.

The House set aside $30 million in its budget plan for the first installment of the settlement. But Senate leaders slashed that payment down to $15 million — and said they may have found a reason to dodge the obligation altogether. Senate President Page Cortez, a Lafayette Republican, pointed to an obscure 1946 law that he said could nullify all legal judgements against the state that are over 10 years old.

“We got legal opinions that said you may not even owe this judgement,” Cortez said.

Even without that statute, the Legislature doesn’t have to pay the judgment if it doesn’t want to, because state courts can’t force lawmakers to appropriate money.

Still, Edwards’ top lawyer Matthew Block told the newspaper that if lawmakers don’t want to pay the flood victims, they should just say so and “be honest with the people who have waited 38 years for this,” instead of digging up an obscure law as justification.

Senate Finance Chairman Bodi White, who handles the budget bills in the Senate, said he was nervous about the precedent set by paying off such a large legal judgment. He pointed to a pending lawsuit filed by Livingston Parish residents who claim a 19-mile (30-kilometer) concrete barrier on I-12 acted as a dam during 2016’s catastrophic floods.

“I don’t know if the state can make everyone whole every time we have a flood,” said White, a Central Republican. He said he believes the victims deserve some compensation but there wasn’t a “great will in the rest of the Senate.”

Rep. Bill Wheat, a Ponchatoula Republican who pushed to get the initial $30 million payment included in the budget, said he’d hope that anybody pointing to the 1946 statute to absolve lawmakers from the debt would understand “that’s not the way we do business.”

“This was something the state was absolutely, 100% responsible for. It’s our responsibility to make these folks whole,” Wheat said.

The storm that struck the region in 1983 wasn’t particularly unusual for south Louisiana. But I-12, which had been constructed in 1975, acted like a dam, causing several feet of water from the Tangipahoa River to back-up into the nearby town of Robert. Before that, the area rarely flooded and few homeowners had flood insurance.

“Still, to this day, I have nightmares about that flood,” said Devona Milton, one flood victim. “You can’t just sweep this under the rug. It took life away from a whole lot of people.”