Louisiana owes 1983 flood victims $300 million — and the victims might finally see some money

The governor’s office says $130 million settlement with the plaintiffs is in the works

By: - May 3, 2021 7:15 pm
Legislature names 4 to Louisiana Ethics Board

The Louisiana Capitol Building, April 8, 2021. (Wes Muller/Louisiana Illuminator).

Nearly 40 years after their businesses and homes were devastated by flooding, Tangipahoa Parish residents and business owners might finally get some money out of an enormous legal judgment they won from the state government for property damage and emotional suffering. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration is hoping to reach a settlement with plaintiffs in a lawsuit over massive 1983 flooding by Thursday. The Louisiana House Appropriations Committee has already approved an annual budget proposal that includes $30 million for nearly 1,300 people whose homes and businesses were damaged 38 years ago.

If a settlement is reached, the $30 million could be the first installment of a five-year payment plan that will eventually total $130 million for those flooding victims and their families, said Matthew Block, the governor’s general counsel.

The court ordered the state to pay those same Tangipahoa residents and business owners $91.8 million in damages in 1984 — an order that governors and lawmakers ignored for decades. The judgment has now ballooned to approximately $300 million as interest has accrued over years, Block said in an interview.

In fact, the state has never paid out any money to the flood victims. During Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, lawmakers and Jindal set aside about $6 million toward the judgment, but that money has just been languishing in a state account. It was never dispersed to the individuals and families, Block said.

The $130 million settlement is supposed to be a compromise that will lessen the financial burden to the state, but also finally get the affected residents and business owners some of the money they’ve been owed.

“It’s been just a matter of having the money to pay for the judgment,” Block said. 

Those Tangipahoa residents and business owners argued successfully that the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development had depleted natural flood protections around the Tangipahoa River when it constructed an Interstate 12 bridge. The state fought the original $91.8 million judgment, but eventually exhausted its appeal options. 

A  judge would have to sign off on the new $130 million settlement even if it is reached. Lawmakers also could — over the next four years — still decline to include the future financial installments in their budget proposals if they wanted, Block said.

In Louisiana, just because a court orders the state to pay residents financial damages doesn’t mean it will necessarily happen. For a payment to go out, the Louisiana Legislature has to agree to include it in its annual state budget plan. In years in which the state is facing budget cuts, lawmakers often disregard legal judgments altogether and pay money to no one the state owes.

Legislators chose to ignore this particularly enormous payment year after year — often paying out other, smaller legal judgments instead. But in 2021, the state is sitting on a large financial surplus, which means that it can spend $30 million without having to make cuts to other services. 

The governor is also from Tangipahoa Parish, where all the residents and businesses owed the money were originally located.

Members of the Edwards administration said payment to the original plaintiffs of the lawsuit could be complicated, since the judgment  was initially awarded in the mid 1980s. In some cases, the people owed the money might have died and their heirs might be entitled to the payment instead.

The Louisiana House Appropriations Committee has also included payments related to 38 other legal judgments made against the state. Those payments total $7.7 million. Committee chairman Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma, said the Senate may also add other legal judgments to the overall payment plan before the legislative session expires in mid-June.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.