One after another, a string of local residents and elected officials stepped up to a podium Tuesday and urged federal engineers to reconsider the idea of adding a 10-mile stretch of levees to the proposed west shore Lake Pontchartrain flood protection project. That idea, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has so far rejected, could help protect portions of St. James and Ascension parishes.
More than 100 people turned out for the corps’ New Orleans district office presentation and public hearing on the proposed flood protection project at the St. John Parish Community Center in LaPlace. It was the second session in as many weeks in the River Parishes.
The corps last month tentatively selected an 18-mile alignment that would protect St. John the Baptist Parish from Lake Pontchartrain’s surge, more than four decades after officials began talks about building back levees there.
The tentatively selected alignment encompasses Montz in St. Charles Parish and LaPlace, Reserve and Garyville in St. John, the corps said. The plan also calls for elevating about 1,480 homes and commercial properties in St. James Parish outside the proposed levee area.
The corps weighed three options for the project, which was first authorized by Congress in 1971. But the corps’ preferred alignment is not the one favored by many local and state officials. That one, known as Alignment D, would cost about $10 million more and would add another 10 miles to the levee, protecting an additional 4,920 structures and ending at higher ground near Sorrento in Ascension Parish.
Several public officials and residents of St. James said Tuesday that they worry that if the corps does not implement Alignment D, surge water may be funneled further into the parish during another storm. St. James saw unprecedented flooding during Hurricane Isaac last year.
“If you build these levees, that water will come in St. James Parish,” said Tony Schexnayder, 52, who lives in Paulina. “It goes there now with no levees, so now we’re going to channel that water into St. James Parish pumping from Ascension.”
St. James Parish Council Chairman James Brazan had tough words for the corps.
“You’re building a levee everywhere but St. James Parish,” he said. “You’re building a funnel to St. James Parish. Now, I’m not an engineer, but I do know if you build a levee everywhere else and you leave us out, sooner or later it’s going to come to us.”
Brazan said he was skeptical that the corps was making the best decision.
“I just don’t buy it,” he said. “It’s just not something that we in St. James Parish should accept, and that’s why you’re seeing everyone here tell you that Alignment D is the way to go.”
Though it is estimated to cost about $10 million more to build, Alignment D would require more environmental structures and, in turn, more maintenance. That would mean added costs over the long haul, said the corps’ project manager, Jeff Varisco, who pegged the upkeep bill at about $500 million over a 50-year period.
The corps’ long-awaited feasibility study and environmental impact statement for the west shore Lake Pontchartrain project recommended a route that follows the north side of Interstate 10 from the Bonnet Carre Spillway levee and connects with the Mississippi River levee west of Garyville. The corps was reviewing ways to provide hurricane storm surge protection to nearly 18,000 homes and commercial structures on the east bank of the Mississippi River in St. Charles, St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes, as well as the I-10 hurricane evacuation corridor.
Roughly 62,900 residents in that area have little or no storm protection, the corps said.
The recommended alignment, known as Alignment C, avoids oil and gas pipelines and reduces storm risk to nearly 7,700 structures, the corps said. About $334 million of the predicted $881 million price tag is earmarked for levees and floodwalls, and $113 million for pump stations, according to the study.
At the corps’ first public hearing on the levee alignment, St. James officials argued that the longer levee was needed to shield the parish’s perique tobacco-growing areas and prevent costly shutdowns at major industrial plants along the Mississippi River.
The feasibility study’s release opened a 45-day public comment period, which closes Oct. 7. Corps officials said they have enough money to complete a chief of engineers’ report on the project, likely by September 2014, setting the stage for possible congressional authorization.
Steve Wilson, president of the Pontchartrain Levee District, which signed on as the project’s sponsor in 2008, was adamant that the corps’ decision is far from final.
“We’re going to build Alignment D. That is what’s going to happen,” Wilson said. “We hope that it’s all federally funded, but whatever we have to do for the $10 million difference and the annual maintenance costs doesn’t scare the (levee district) or the parish presidents.
“Somebody’s going to have to drag me out of here for us not to build it.”