Isaac recovery doing better
Shortly after Hurricane Isaac left Louisiana, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., quickly and formally asked the question that was coming up in some of the worst-flooded areas in southern Louisiana.
Did the upgraded, post-Hurricane Katrina protection system for the New Orleans area inadvertently contribute more to flooding in other areas like St. John the Baptist Parish, St. James Parish and more?
“Some areas got unprecedented flooding from Isaac. So it’s a natural, legitimate question,” Vitter said. “We need to look at that with real scientific certainty.”
The senator’s interest is in whether a “funneling effect” occurred during Isaac in which the improved New Orleans system actually put more pressure on the less-protected and less-populated surrounding regions.
Garret Graves, director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Coastal Activities, agreed the question is worth asking. “It certainly makes you look at what has changed here,” Graves said.
Early storm modeling shows the protection system could potentially add an extra one to four inches of water in certain areas, he said. “There may have been some minor implications,” Graves said.
But comparing that to the 7-foot storm surge in St. John Parish makes the resulting difference relatively minor, he said. Essentially, the large, slow-moving storm was going to create a lot of flooding there no matter what with the current level of protection those parishes and regions have, Graves said.
“You had a western wind that was just blowing and blowing and blowing for several hours on the Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas systems,” Graves said.
Given the circumstances, he said, the results sadly were not surprising.
“Our (coastal protection) master plan certainly had defined the vulnerabilities in those areas,” Graves said.
What Isaac did, as a result, is blatantly expose the haves and have-nots of hurricane protection in southern Louisiana that now exists in this post-Katrina era.
New Orleans and Baton Rouge both took a beating but survived mostly intact without a lot of flooding. Not so much for the rest of southeastern Louisiana.
The state has a $50 billion master plan to remedy the problem but very little of the funding. There are some revenue streams in place, but most are yet to take effect.
“We have to pursue better protections for those other areas,” Vitter said, such as Plaquemines, lower Jefferson, St. John, specific parts of St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes and more.
“I understand the new system was built in an expedited manner that did not allow for a full understanding of the effects of residual flooding in the surrounding areas,” Vitter wrote in his letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “But those areas that did experience flooding had protection projects, be it studies or other work ongoing, that were deemed not feasible or are currently stalled like the West Shore (Lake Pontchartrain) Hurricane Protection Project.”
The bigger fight is for the Louisiana congressional delegation to continue to push for increasing and expediting federal funds and oil-sharing revenues to come to the state to get the master plan moving.
Graves said he is optimistic President Barack Obama sincerely wants to help, after the president visited the state on Monday.
On that visit, Obama acknowledged the “larger issue” apart from the Isaac recovery of ensuring such vulnerable areas are properly protected.
The president said he will work on “expediting some of the decisions that may need to be made to ensure that we’ve got the infrastructure in place to protect people’s property and to protect people’s lives.”
Or, more succinctly stated, Obama asked one LaPlace resident in a flooded area, “How’s it going?” The one-word reply, “Better.”
“I know it’s a mess,” Obama responded, “but we just wanted to come by to let you know that we know it’s a mess.”
In the meantime, as the hurricane recovery gets going and they wait years for bigger infrastructure improvements, one of the few things the flood-protection have-nots can ask for is whether the New Orleans protection system made it worse for them.
Well, that and for no more hurricanes.
Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is jblum@theadvocate.