AMITE, La. - A fear is echoing throughout Tangipahoa Parish tonight: is the river that runs through it flooding more often, higher and longer? And if so, why? People who live along the Tangipahoa River said, without a doubt, yes. But experts varied on their answers to those questions.
The Tangipahoa River runs 122 miles, mostly through Tangipahoa Parish. Hundreds of people call the banks of the waterway home and they love the river way of life. But since last fall, many people said that love has turned to loathing.
"In 2013 alone, our river has been high at least 40 days, so that’s one-third of the time,” said river resident Tracy Shaff, “It keeps getting worse after each storm, after each shower."
Shaff lives along the Tangipahoa, near the bottom of the river, in the Ponchatoula area. But her concern mirrors the one Bruce Truebel shared with Eyewitness News in February at his property in Loranger, which is closer to the middle of the river.
Truebel said, "It used to be that the river would crest within 36 hours, almost every flood, and start to recede. Now, in the January flood, it was 72 hours before it crested."
For Truebel, the change in the river escalated after Hurricane Isaac in September. His property is now being eaten away in some places and buried in others. It's the exact same for Shaff and her neighbors farther south.
"You'll notice there's lots of erosion, a lot more sand since Isaac,” said Shaff, “A lot of this sand was not here prior to Isaac."
In addition to the land concern, there are plenty of water worries.
Shaff said, "You can see that these people, they have water beneath their home and this is a very minor flood for us right now."
Again, the same problem shared farther north.
Shaff said, "When there is any hint of rain coming, we all become very anxious because we wonder okay how bad is this flood going to be.
She said it it never used to be that way.
At the National Weather Service in Slidell, river forecasters see the Tangipahoa situation differently, especially reviewing historical crest records, where the third worst was during Hurricane Isaac, but none afterward.
Hydrologist In Charge Suzanne Van Cooten said that when you consider the numbers from September to April, the data does not show that there has been anything out of the ordinary in regard to flooding.
But Biologist Chris Davis with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries said different numbers tell him something's up.
He said, "If you look at it since August of last year, which the beginning was the hurricane, we've had seven floods in that time. If you look at the past records, the previous five years, we only had ten."
Those numbers come from the gauge at Robert. Compare that to gauges in Osyka, Mississippi, Kentwood and Amite, you find a similar pattern.
Davis said, "I just think the last year, the last several months, the rain events, that's what's affected the river."
Parish President Gordon Burgess agrees something has changed with the river, but gives a slightly different reason.
"One thing is because the dam in Mississippi,” said Burgess, “The possible breach made more people more aware of what could happen. It didn't happen, but it could happen. And then with all the rainfall we've had."
River residents in the south said it's more about the lack of maintenance on the waterway, which leaves downed trees blocking the flow and the path for boats. But the homeowners in the north have a theory of their own.
Truebel said, "The problem again is Lake Tangipahoa. All that water from all that area that goes into the lake, now goes straight down the river."
Lake Tangipahoa, and the dam separating it from the river, is what caused a mass evacuation and panic during Hurricane Isaac. It's found in Percy Quin State Park in McComb, Mississippi. Land slid in two places, sparking terror that the whole thing could buckle, but it didn't. Since then, the lake has been completely drained, and the dam closed off while the land around it is rebuilt stronger to prevent any scares in the future.
"When we have rain that comes through, the diversion canal takes it through its path instead of the normal spillway. It actually disperses it slower than the spillway would so the hydraulics show and do prove that for anything we're doing on the dam as far as construction to cause someone additional flooding that they weren't getting before is simply not the case," said Mississippi State Parks Director Ramie Ford.
If you think there's a lot of unanswered questions as to whether there is anything wrong with the Tangipahoa River, and if so, what it could be, there are plenty more when it comes to finding a fix. Shaff believes all it will take is clearing out downed trees and debris. Since it's a scenic river, that's a job for the Army Corps of Engineers, but parish leadership backs the idea.
"If they can go in there and de-snag, I think they're going to see the river flooding slowing down some," said Burgess.
Shaff said, "You can't fight this river. There's no winning, so we need some help."
For one expert, all of the answers are one in the same and simple: you have to live with it, it doesn't have to live with you, Davis said.
The Army Corps of Engineers has permission to clear out the river from the mouth to mile marker 53 in Amite. The agency says the project is on its "to-do" list, but funding is not available. U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu's office said funding was made available to dredge the Tangipahoa in 2011, but the emergency flood on the Mississippi River used up the money. The Coast Guard, however, was recently able to secure FEMA money for a snagging project from the mouth of the river to the 11 mile marker north.