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Louisiana’s 1983 Flood Victims May Not Get Money Owed To Them After All

The Louisiana State Capitol. March 2021.
Phoebe Jones
The Louisiana State Capitol. March 2021.

This story was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator.

The Louisiana Senate leadership may be nixing a dealto finally pay hundreds of Tangipahoa Parish families and business owners who won an enormous legal judgment against the state over flooding in their community nearly 40 years ago.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration had been hoping to settle the $300 million judgment by paying out less than half of the amount due — $130 million — over the next five years. The governor’s office hoped the flood victims would agree to the deal, in order to ensure they would receive any money at all.

The House got on the board with Edwards’ plan earlier this month. The lower chamber included $30 million in this year’s budget plan for the first payment to the flood victims. The initial installment was supposed to be followed up with four more payments of $25 million over the following four years. The state also would have had to get a judge to sign off on the compromise.

But the Senate leadership balked at that proposal Monday. The Senate Finance Committee voted to set aside just $15 million for that first payment to victims — half of what the House had included — in its budget proposal.

The senators also aren’t committing to distributing that $15 million to the flood victims yet.

They said a 1946 law may nullify all legal judgments against the state that are over 10 years old. If true, the state might not have to pay the flood victims at all, and, under the Senate Finance Committee proposal, the $15 million would be used for other state expenses.

Some senators were concerned about the precedent it might set if the lawmakers agreed to make such a large payment toward a judgment.

“We’ve never in our history paid a judgment that’s $30 million,” said Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette. “We would be binding future legislators to make payments on this judgment and future judgments.”

Edwards’ general counsel, Matthew Block, disagreed with Cortez’s assessment. He said the settlement could not force lawmakers to pay off the judgment in the future.

“No agreement can bind the Legislature and require them to pay a legal judgment,” said Block, the governor’s lead negotiator on the settlement. “The state can’t be legally forced to pay a judgment. It is always subject to appropriation.”

Block and others also disagreed that judgments against the state can be scuttled under a 1946 state law. Rep. Bill Wheat, R-Ponchatoula, represents the community where the flooding took place. He said the 1946 law came up in the legal fight between the state and flood victims years ago — and judges ruled it wasn’t relevant to the case.

Previous governors and the Louisiana Legislature are responsible for this specific judgment being so large.

The court ordered the state to pay the Tangipahoa residents and business owners $91.8 million in damages in 1984. Governors and lawmakers choose to ignore the order for decades, causing the judgment to balloon to $300 million, as interest has accrued over the years.

Approximately 1,400 families sued the state after flooding damaged their homes and businesses near the Tangipahoa River in 1983. They argued the construction of Interstate 12 rerouted water when the river was overwhelmed and destroyed their properties. Judges agreed with the flood victims over a number of appeals from the state, upholding the initial damages the community initially won.

Senators may be concerned about what’s to come in terms of flooding damages. Livingston Parish victims of the 2016 flooding in the Baton Rouge region are also suing the state for damages — claiming again that the construction of Interstate 12 contributed to the destruction of their property. Senate Finance Chairman Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, said the judgment in that lawsuit could be “10 times” what the Tangipahoa flooding victims are supposed to receive.

Cortez also suggested the judgment was an overreach on the part of the judiciary branch. He questioned whether judges should be able to force lawmakers to pay such a massive mandate.

But the state pays off other, more modest judicial judgments on a regular basis. The House budget proposal included funding for 38 legal judgments other than the one for the Tangipahoa flood victims. Those other 38 judgments cost $7.7 million overall and include payments to individuals ranging from $6,500 to $1.2 million.

The Senate Finance Committee has added an additional $7 million to the budget proposal to pay off a different set of judgments, though it hadn’t released a list of the awards as of Monday evening.

Cortez speculated it might be better for the 1,400 individuals who are owed money through the $300 million judgment to seek their compensation on an individual basis — instead of as a group — from the Legislature. Block said that proposal would be unnecessarily complicated.

Wheat fought to get the initial $30 million payment included in the House budget plan. He said he was frustrated by the Senate’s decision. Wheat said his constituents deserve the financial relief the court awarded to them.

“The harm done to those folks — there was generational damage done here. There was land that was taken completely out of use. Strawberry farms and chicken farms that used to exist can’t be there anymore,” said Wheat, who grew up in the community where the flooding happened.

Wheat said the area that initially flooded in 1983 has flooded again numerous times. The state has not fixed the problem it caused four decades ago — and yet still refuses to pay for the initial set of damages.

“The state has decided to pay multiple judgments over the years before this one. It continually put other people in front of them,” he said.

Julie O'Donoghue

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