Levee report notes local lessons

Federal officials on Tuesday will receive a report about levee construction in Lafourche Parish that may not meet their post-Hurricane Katrina standards for levees but could be a model for less expensive structures in the future.

Windell Curole, general manager of the South Lafourche Levee District and member of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said the manual was prepared to not only answer the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ questions, but also to hopefully help other districts. The report will come at a CPRA meeting at 9:30 a.m. at the Lake Charles Civic Center, 900 Lakeshore Drive.

Curole has long maintained that the dirt levees during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 did not fail.

If a levee holds up until it is overtopped, Curole said, that is not a failure but the result of a storm that is above the structure’s design. Floodwalls failed before the water reached the top of the structure, he said, and dirt levees crumbled after water cascaded over them to scour out the backside support.

After Katrina in 2005, an independent review team, the Interagency Performance Evaluation Taskforce, looked into the failings of the New Orleans area levee system and came up with what the best levee you could have would look like, Curole said.

“There’s no doubt it makes a very good levee. It also makes an unaffordable levee,” Curole said. “The corps and IPET wanted resilience. They wanted the water to be able to get over a levee and still stand.”

But if more than a foot of water comes over that levee, Curole said, the basin it’s protecting is going to fill up anyway.

He said that in East Jefferson, large sandbags were placed on top of levees and although the water got above the levee’s height, those sandbags kept the water from overtopping and the levees held.

“That all told me the way we built levees in the past wasn’t bad,” Curole said. “The basic criteria and standard for levees didn’t need to be changed so much.”

After Katrina, the corps came up with a new 100-year storm and levee standard and said that the Lafourche levee system was not certifiable.

Although money to bring the levee system up to the 100-year levee standard of the corps was expected from Congress, it didn’t materialize, Curole said.

In addition, there were new criteria for building levees that made them much more expensive in order to improve the risk reduction capabilities.

“There is risk in anything. There’s risk in going on the highway and the corps’ solution is to put everyone in tanks,” Curole said. However, he said, not everyone can afford the tank.

“So we said we’re going to protect our people the best way we can,” Curole said. “My job is to get the best protection we can with the money we have available.”

At the time, the levee in South Lafourche was 13 feet in elevation in the south and 8.5 feet on the north end, Curole said. Residents passed a one-cent sales tax and started working on improvements to bring the levee up to 16 feet in the south and 13 feet in the north, he said.

Tom Holden, deputy district engineer with the corps New Orleans district, said the levee district’s draft document is something the corps has wanted for at least three years.

“Windell is constantly looking to improve his Larose to Golden Meadow project,” Holden said about the South Lafourche Levee District’s levee.

The design document will help the corps review the work the levee district is doing and examine if the work being done might fit into or meet the federal post-Katrina standard in the future, Holden said.

The corps is doing a post-authorization report that, if approved, could pave the way to get the Larose to Golden Meadow levee system federally reauthorized so money could be requested to get it up to the post-Katrina standards. That report is about 18 to 24 months away from completion, Holden said.

In addition, Holden said, the corps is trying to find ways to lower the costs associated with the post-Katrina levee standards while maintaining the same risk reduction properties, Holden said.

“We’re working at the national level to answer that question,” he said.

Garret Graves, chairman of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said the cost of the post-Katrina levee standards has been a concern for levee district and coastal protection officials.

“We strongly support the goals of the corps’ post-Katrina standards. We must be relentless in applying lessons learned from Katrina; however, the Corps’ new standards are far too rigid and inefficient to apply to all communities in South Louisiana,” Graves wrote in an email.

“The recently updated report on the Morganza-to-the-Gulf Hurricane Protection Project is a perfect example – the project was estimated to cost $550 million in 2000,” Graves wrote. “By applying the new standards today the project costs exploded to well over an estimated $12 billion.”

He wrote that both the corps’ old and new approaches are dangerous because if you don’t provide enough protection, it can give a false sense of security.

“If you propose gold-plated levees, they may withstand the most powerful hurricane, but you will never be able to afford to build them — leaving families, homes and businesses unreasonably vulnerable,” Graves wrote.