Corps urged to include St. James, Ascension in proposed levee alignment
“If our parish is flooded, how are (evacuees) going to get where they have to go?” Shelley Donadieu, St. James Parish resident
LUTCHER — Hundreds of people listened Tuesday as St. James Parish officials, state representatives and residents pleaded for a federal protection levee alignment that would spare St. James and Ascension parishes from hurricane surge waters out of lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in a draft report last month, tentatively selected an $881 million route, known as Alignment C, which would protect St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes but leave out Ascension and St. James parishes because of Alignment C’s better cost-benefit.
The locally favored Alignment D costs just $10 million more to build but would cost $10 million more per year to operate and keep levees upgraded, which corps project manager Jeff Varisco said Tuesday would cost local governments $500 million more to operate than Alignment C through 2070.
Concerns centered on what type of flooding impact St. James would face if it were left out of the future levee protection area, including critical hurricane evacuation routes for communities downriver from St. James along Interstate 10 and U.S. 61, which have flooded in the past.
“If our parish is flooded, how are they going to get where they have to go,” asked St. James Parish resident Shelley Donadieu before at least 500 people in the Lutcher High School auditorium.
Parish officials also argued that the longer Alignment D levee is needed to protect St. James’ unique perique tobacco growing areas while a representative of major industries on the Mississippi River said Alignment D is needed to prevent costly shutdowns at plants.
Henry Friloux, who said he was speaking for business and industry in St. Charles, St. John and St. James parishes, said Alignment C would leave part of St. John and all of St. James exposed.
“St. James is a key player in the economy of the country and needs to be protected,” Friloux said.
Parish President Timmy Roussel also delivered a list of questions about the report and pledged to make Alignment D his top priority until the final report on the levee is issued next year.
Others spoke about broadly shared fears that if St. James were left out, the new levee would push water into the parish, creating a funnel like effect. One man alleged Alignment C would make St. James a “retention pond.”
Jude Cambre, 75, of Paulina, said Alignment C could be stretched to provide most of the protection residents want in St. James.
“So what’s up? I believe they’re trying to crucify us. Thank you,” Cambre said.
Over the next 50 years, Alignment C would require “non-structural” measures for 1,571 homes and businesses in St. James, 1,400 in the Gramercy and Lutcher areas alone as a predicted sea level rise enhances flood risk, the corps report says.
These measures include voluntary home elevations, in some cases only by 3 or 4 feet, and buyouts.
Both alignments would start at the west guide levee of the Bonnet Carré Spillway. But the 18-mile Alignment C would track pipeline corridors south of I-10 and just outside the developed fringe of river communities, stopping to include the Garyville area of St. John.
The $891 million Alignment D would stretch 28 miles, largely following the north side of I-10 but turning northeast to stop at the Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station in Ascension.
The hearing had been planned at the Knights of Columbus hall across West Main Street from the high school. But with the room jammed, Roussel announced the meeting would be moved, and hundreds of people, including corps officials with presentation material in tow, walked together to the high school.
In comments before the public input phase, Varisco, the corps project manager, emphasized the impact the long-term operating costs played in the corps’ tentative recommendation, which he said must be made in the best interest of the federal government. “It is an economic decision,” he said.
But corps officials also promised to work with officials and hear their arguments as they make a final decision on whether to go forward with Alignment C for a deeper study that could lead to final report to Congress by September 2014.
When asked by an aide of Sen. David Vitter if he would take a helicopter ride over the affected area in next 10 to 15 days, Col. Richard Hansen, commander and district engineer for the corps’ New Orleans District, said he would take the ride.
Hansen will make the final call on which alignment to study further. His decision could come in mid-November.
In the hearing and in the weeks since the corps’ draft report has been public, officials in St. James, Ascension and at the Pontchartrain Levee District have been scrutinizing the benefit figures in the corps’ analysis.
St. James Parish Sheriff Willy Martin pointed out Tuesday that residents’ efforts to sandbag and keep out flood waters in the past have kept Federal Emergency Management Agency claims low. He said the parish should not be punished for those efforts now, a comment which drew loud applause in the auditorium.