[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story, we erred in recounting a statement by Greg Gerami.]
An unprotected river bank and a compromised earth berm, built as protection for a condo complex, hastened Vermilion River flooding into several homes just west along River Road Monday. City officials say that on Sunday they attempted to stop the floods flanking the city's barriers but could not get permission from the condo property owners to sandbag the area.
Tempers flared between complex owners refusing sandbags and residents of the River Oaks neighborhood demanding them through Monday when the National Guard arrived. Ultimately authorized by the city, guardsmen stacked the sandbags atop and along the berm’s soaked dirt, abating the free-flowing waters and allowing the city’s pump system south of the impact zone to begin pushing the water back into the bayou.
Lafayette Consolidated Government Public Works Director Tom Carroll says the city, which does not own or maintain the naked river bank or privately constructed flood barriers along River Trace Townhomes at Oakbourne, sought permission from homeowners in the complex to sandbag a 100-foot stretch of eroded berm, but the homeowners declined.
“Residents of the townhomes were really apprehensive. Residents of neighborhood really wanted it done,” says Carroll. “It was a tense situation.”
The condo complex's residents told city officials that further barriers would cause water levels to rise into their homes by preventing the water’s escape over the shrunken berm, which bisects the city’s levee along the river bank. Not long after the sandbags were in place, the water level began to drop, but by then several homes had been damaged.
Saturday’s historic rains swelled the bayou to more than 17 feet, well over the elevation of the complex’s unguarded riverbank, filling the development’s parking lot with water but not penetrating condo thresholds.
Greg Gerami, whose brick house is slung beneath the city’s concrete barrier, packed up his belongings Saturday as the bayou rose fearing the city's levee would not hold back the water.
"I figured [the water] was gonna breach it. Everybody was saying it wasn’t, but I wasn’t taking any chances," says Gerami. "It’s never come close to coming over that wall. There was a flood over here eight years ago, but it wasn’t from the river. It rained so much that they couldn’t pump it out fast enough.”
The city built the earth levee and retention wall adjacent to the River Oaks neighborhood in 1985, completing nearly a mile of levee protection that stretches from a Surrey Street pump station just west of the neighborhood and terminates at the River Trace boundary to the east. Property owners at the time did not permit the city to build the levee into the complex property, according to Mitch Wyble, a city engineer who served as project manager on the build.
While neighborhood properties took on water as early as Sunday, water levels did not threaten homes until spilling over the complex’s unprotected bank and flushing over the perpendicular sunken berm, culminating with widespread flooding on Monday afternoon.
As of Tuesday, yards had begun to drain and residents were returning to their homes to collect belongings or begin cleaning.