FILE - 2016 Louisiana floods

Cleaning up after the flooding of 2016 in Baton Rouge.

A Louisiana official says $1.2 billion in federal funding could be available to reduce flood risk by early next spring.

It’s not enough money to eliminate flood risk in the state, but it would help ensure future dollars are spent as effectively as possible, said Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development.

“That’s really the important part of this long term, is to help us make better investments as we go forward,” he said Wednesday at a Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority subcommittee meeting.

The money, which was appropriated last year, will pay for construction of flood-protection projects, data collection, and development of computer modeling to assess, predict and prepare for water movement throughout the state, officials say. The data and modeling tools are intended to help local governments select and prioritize long-term projects and support regional planning.

At least half of the money must be spent in the 10 parishes hardest hit by the 2016 floods, according to federal guidelines.

While building standards traditionally are a local issue, Forbes said local officials increasingly want the state to take a leading role in setting guidelines to make communities more flood-resistant. Louisiana last year established the Watershed Initiative to facilitate water management across jurisdictional boundaries.

Cindy O’Neal, who heads the floodplain management office at the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said the state should mandate for new construction to have at least a one-foot “freeboard standard,” which means one foot above base flood elevation. “Base flood” refers to a flood that is believed to have a one percent chance of occurring in any given year.

She said local political leaders might be persuaded to support stricter building standards if they could promise their constituents wouldn’t be required to buy flood insurance, a change that would depend on federal policy.

“We kind of have to throw them a carrot to get them to adopt higher standards sometimes,” she said.

The National Flood Insurance Program currently is set to expire at the end of this month, though Congress is debating reauthorizing the program for five more years. David Maurstad, who is NFIP’s chief executive, said the program is embarking on a “long-overdue” overhaul of its risk-rating system.

The goal is to use new technology to create better models so that insurance is priced in a way that better reflects a property’s true flood risk, he said. As a federal government program, rather than a private-sector insurer, NFIP has competing goals to keep flood insurance affordable while being fiscally responsible, he noted.

Maurstad said many people believe that if they’re not in a high-risk area where they are required to buy flood insurance, they don’t need it at all. He said he wants to move to a more “graduated” idea of flood risk.

“I think the discussion is all wrong,” he said. “We fixate on black or white, in or out.”

Staff Writer

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.