Officials have confidence in Jefferson’s flood-protection system

Throughout much of southeast Louisiana, the story of Hurricane Katrina was one of collapsed floodwalls and breached levees.

Jefferson Parish was different. The system of levees and walls built to block the storm’s surge held. The protective ring was never breached.

But many of the pumps installed to push rainwater through canals into Lake Pontchartrain were silent, their operators having been evacuated prior to the storm.

Jurors in a class-action trial starting Monday will hear testimony about the evacuation and will determine how to lay blame for the subsequent flooding in the parish.

On the technical level, however, officials say they are confident in the protective system that rings Jefferson Parish and in the post-Katrina upgrades still underway.

“The levee system (in Jefferson Parish) performed fairly well during Katrina, and it’s been improved with these projects,” said Bob Turner, executive director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — East, which oversees the levee systems on the east bank of Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes.

Post-Katrina reports laid the blame for flooding in the parish largely on issues with the pump stations.

A report commissioned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study failures during Katrina estimated 89 percent of the parish’s pumping capacity was lost due to the evacuations. At the same time, there was no significant damage to those stations.

Because of the lawsuit, Jefferson Parish officials who oversee the internal drainage operations in the parish declined to comment this month on the parish’s pumping operations or other flood protection measures.

Other, more technical issues were also identified in the Corps of Engineers report. In particular, the report noted that Lake Pontchartrain rose high enough to cover the discharge outlets of the pump stations there, forcing water back through the system.

Part of the corps’ $14.5 billion upgrade to the New Orleans area’s flood protection system was to deal with those issues, Turner said. New gates can block off the canals to prevent water from surging into them from the lake, and other improvements to the system will help prevent backflow, he said.

The pump stations have new safe houses that can be used by crews during storms, he said.

Levees also have been raised and new floodwalls built to bring the parish’s flood protection system up to the so-called 100-year standard, meaning it is built to withstand a storm that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.

A new berm on the lakefront will reduce the force of storm surges before they get to the levees.

Some projects are still underway, and some issues are still under discussion. For example, the flood protection authority is still working with the corps to determine how to go about “armoring” the levees, a process that uses turf mats and grasses to prevent erosion on the levees’ back side should they be overtopped.

In the event of a major storm, the system should reduce damage. But, Turner noted, residents should still expect to evacuate in case of a major storm.

“I think there would still be a mandatory evacuation called, which is a smart thing,” Turner said. “The primary thing is to protect people’s lives.”