Jefferson Parish to help areas outside levees

Residents from Lafitte, Barataria, Crown Point and Grand Isle used heartfelt pleas and personal stories of woe to persuade the Jefferson Parish Council to dedicate about $15.7 million in grant money on improving their flood protection.

A standing-room only crowd packed the council’s Harahan chambers to pressure the board into approving Council Chairman Chris Roberts’ resolution dedicating an expected disbursement of hazard mitigation grant funding to elevating homes outside of the parish’s hurricane protection system.

Roberts’ resolution, which was co-authored by Councilman Ricky Templet, dedicated current and future FEMA funding related to Hurricanes Ike, Isaac and Gustav to those areas. That includes the current $15.5 million and another $10 million the parish expects to get appropriated later.

Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner predicted residents would fill the council chambers weeks ago when discussions about how to use the grant funding first began, and he rallied residents to show up on Wednesday. Kerner told the council that dedicating that money to residents who often have flooded four times in the past seven years was the only humane choice. Not only are residents tired of rebuilding their lives after every storm, but they also are being priced out of their communities by changes in how the National Flood Insurance Program calculates premiums.

“That money is based upon the flooding and the pain and suffering of the people of Lafitte, Barataria, Crown Point and Grand Isle… That money is based on our hardships,” Kerner said. “This is probably the most important thing in the history of Lafitte, Barataria, Crown Point and Grand Isle.”

Grand Isle Mayor David Carmardelle echoed Kerner’s comments, noting that he has seen promises broken by the federal government too many times.

“I’m tired of this. I’m tired of fighting,” Carmardelle said. “The people in Grand Isle are suffering.”

A stream of residents reinforced the mayors’ comments by alternating between berating and begging council members. Residents said they’ve fought with federal, state and local officials for years to get their homes elevated without success. Some of them expressed frustration and anger that homes that are within the parish’s new hurricane protection system, which includes pumps, levees and other improvements, have been elevated while their homes continue to flood.

“Look at all of us and see how much we’re suffering,” said Dorene Adams, of Lafitte.

Residents said that with premiums increasing exponentially under the flood insurance program, they need their homes raised to afford to stay in the communities they love. Several business owners said that since subsidies are being removed from their properties, it’s becoming harder to justify staying in business. Clint Guidry said he’s rebuilt and helped his parents rebuild, but he’s running out of energy.

“The need is immediate … It becomes harder and harder as I get older and older to come back and clean and rebuild,” Guidry said.

Although the council unanimously approved Roberts’ resolution, there were still some questions from east bank board members about how the guidelines would affect their districts. Roberts argued that funding related to Ike, Isaac and Gustav should go to those areas outside of the hurricane protection because those are the areas that the federal officials examined when they determined how much the parish suffered. However, several council members have noted that there are other areas in the parish that suffer repetitive flooding, and they want to be sure those areas have a chance to get relief.

Councilman E. Ben Zahn III mentioned the University Park area in Kenner as an area of concern in his district. Councilman Mark Spears has talked about homes in the Lincolnshire subdivision in Marrero. Councilwoman Cynthia Lee Sheng said she had to make certain that if she supported Roberts’ resolution, residents in her district wouldn’t suffer, while Zahn noted that if he shortchanges his constituents, they won’t be pleased.

“It’s packed today with Grand Isle and Lafitte. In two weeks it could be packed with people from the other four districts,” Zahn said.

But Templet argued that the parish has seen hundreds of millions of dollars spent on projects that benefit the parish as a whole, and now it’s time to provide some special assistance to his district. If those communities aren’t viable, the parish as a whole suffers, Templet argued.

“I’m asking you today to stand by them and stand by myself,” he said. “If we start losing our tax base in these communities, we start losing our parish.”

Kerner called the council’s decision a “big win” for his constituents but said there is still work to be done. Kerner is pushing for the parish to dedicate another $11 million in grant funding related to Katrina to his area because those funds don’t require residents to have flood insurance or provide matching money. While the current grants will help hundreds, those people who really have nowhere else to turn still need more.

“I’m not going to let that go,” Kerner said.