A flood of questions a year after Hurricane Isaac hits

Hurricane Isaac’s unusually high waters has some wondering if flood-protection measures may have made conditions worse

It was only a Category 1 storm. But as Hurricane Isaac inched across southeast Louisiana in late August last year, it unleashed more than a foot of rain, topped several levees and shoved water deep into the swampy recesses of southeast Louisiana.

Isaac killed three people in Louisiana, damaged more than 59,000 homes and prompted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide $400 million in assistance.

New Orleans fared well, protected by $14 billion in post-Katrina levee and pump-system upgrades.

But other communities on Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Maurepas — or along the rivers and bayous that feed them — suffered greatly.

In Livingston, Ascension. Tangipahoa and St. James parishes, the water rose higher and faster than anyone could remember.

“It just wouldn’t stop coming up,” said Nicole Bell, 43, who with her husband, Brett, owns Val’s Marina, a bar, restaurant and local hangout in Head of Island.

Rising water in the swampland community of southern Livingston is a part of life. Hurricanes have flooded Val’s before but never as Isaac had, sending in 4 feet of water in 19 hours, Bell said.

And in LaPlace in St. John Parish, whole neighborhoods were swallowed by water from Lake Pontchartrain.

Weather experts blame the devastation on the storm’s large size, slow pace and arcing path west of Baton Rouge and New Orleans — an unusual but potent combination that allowed the strong winds to stack up water in the Pontchartrain basin.

Yet many people still wonder whether the New Orleans levee system and other flood-protection efforts, such as pumping systems in Ascension Parish, worsened an already bad situation.

As officials promote more flood-protection plans in reaction to Isaac, including the federal West Shore Levee across the back side of the River Parishes, a debate has arisen over the best way to affordably guard against future storms without saving one parish at the expense of another.

John Lopez, director of coastal sustainability for the New Orleans-based Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, said Isaac was a reminder of how complicated it is to find a regional solution.

“It refocused our attention on the people that are living outside the levee system,” he said.

Lopez said it is also clear the solution will vary with the community.

“For some of those parishes, their path forward is a levee,” he said.

But for others, he said, the answer may be elevating homes or even relocating.

While people should not be forced to leave, Lopez said, if they choose to stay in some areas, “to certain degree, they have to assume some risk.”

When Isaac made landfall on Aug. 29, 2012, the storm drove surge into areas unaccustomed to such flooding.

The crown jewel of Ascension Parish’s self-financed $180 million flood-protection system, the Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station, was nearly overwhelmed by water that rose nearly 2 feet higher than ever seen before.

Parish officials called a brief voluntary evacuation in the St. Amant area until the water receded.

“It was kind of shaky for a while,” Parish President Tommy Martinez said.

Across the southern end of Livingston Parish, more than 2,000 homes were damaged, many in rural, low-lying hamlets such as French Settlement, Maurepas and Head of Island. In some areas, people were evacuated by boats and large trucks.

The most-severe damage was in St. John the Baptist and Plaquemines parishes. A surge of up to 3 feet in LaPlace forced about 4,000 people to be rescued, flooded nearly 6,000 homes and shut down Interstate 10.

In Braithwaite in Plaquemines Parish, more than 100 people were rescued from their homes and roofs after an 18-mile stretch of a non-federal levee was overtopped. Two of the state’s three deaths were in Braithwaite.

The losses were sentimental as well.

In Livingston Parish, 60-year-old Charlotte Wright still mourns the lost belongings she had kept from her daughter and husband, who had died years earlier. Awakened by a neighbor the morning of Aug. 30, 2012, Wright said, the water came up too quickly in her Head of Island home for her to save much of anything.

“We picked up what we could, but where do you put anything when you’re out of a sound sleep and you got 30 minutes to pick up. What do you pick up first?” she asked.

The inside of her octagonal house, a shape Wright chose for its strength against storm winds, remains unfinished due to a dispute with her bank. The bottom 4 feet of her interior walls are still bare to the studs. Her roof still leaks, too.

Facing questions from leaders of swamped communities like LaPlace, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers looked last year at the New Orleans levee improvements but found that those structures had minimal impact on flooding in areas of the basin outside the new system and may have slightly lessened it in some cases.

The corps said the new levees kept water throughout Lake Maurepas 0.1 to 0.2 feet lower than it otherwise would have been. The new system allowed the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in New Orleans East to be shut, blocking an old route for surge into Lake Pontchartrain and the surrounding basin.

The study suggested the flooding resulted from Isaac’s storm surge into Lake Maurepas, which has a limited drainage outlet at Pass Manchac.

This kept surge water from quickly easing out when waters began dropping in Lake Pontchartrain. That, in turn, kept rain-swollen rivers from draining into Lake Maurepas, flooding communities on those rivers.

For their part, Ascension Parish officials likewise dispute that the Marvin Braud station, which at the time had five pumps running for 30 hours straight, worsened flooding in Livingston, St. James or St. John the Baptist parishes.

The diesel-powered pumps drain a large swath of East Ascension and send water by canal into swamps in the Blind River area of St. James Parish. Blind River drains into Lake Maurepas and is a key outlet for St. James.

Ascension officials say their engineering shows the water spreads out across the vastness of the entire basin and has a minimal effect on flooding in unprotected areas, like St. James or southern Livingston Parish.

Martinez, the Ascension Parish president, said officials, including those from St. John and St. James, asked him to stop running the pumps during Isaac, but he refused.

St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel said he believes Ascension’s pumps poured water into the Blind River area and hurt St. James.

“Well, look, backing up is backing up, and if Blind River is already backing up on us and we’re already flooding houses, then I don’t care if it’s a drop. We’re flooding more by a drop,” Roussel said. “If your houses are threatened, they’re threatened, and if the water’s backing up, that is water backing up on us, cut and dried.”

The station now has a new sixth pump, part of a long-planned expansion.

An early 1970s outgrowth of levee protection plans initially prompted by Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the West Shore Levee project would establish a levee system between River Parishes communities and lakes Pontchartrain and Maurepas.

Depending on the alignment, the system could protect primarily communities in St. John or track I-10 farther north and offer protection to St. James and Ascension, too, potentially cutting off wetlands in the process.

Ascension and St. James officials said they want to be included in the levee — Roussel worries surge water would be funneled into his parish if St. James is left out — but other parishes not even in the most expansive plans are watching warily.

Tangipahoa Parish Councilman Bobby Cortez said he fears the levee would push water farther into Tangipahoa and other unprotected parishes.

“I don’t know what the answer is,” he said.

But Cortez said he has hopes “an easy answer” might be a proposed surge barrier across the Rigolets “to keep water from getting in the lake to begin with.”

Ricky Boyett, a corps spokesman, said the agency is close to choosing a levee alternative for deeper study, which could set the stage for eventual congressional authorization.

That study, Boyett said, will consider impacts on surrounding communities.

St. Tammany Parish officials have pushed for the Rigolets system, which would prevent surge from the Gulf from entering Lake Pontchartrain through the Rigolets and Chef Menteur passes. The tidal passes tie the far eastern side of Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne and the Gulf of Mexico.

While various concepts for the surge barrier have been proposed through the years, more recent ones call for a series of gates that can be closed for a few days as a storm passes.

But corps and other modeling suggest the effect of such a system would be limited because it wouldn’t prevent wind-driven surge from lake waters farther west and could drive up water levels in the lake in some cases. The barriers raise concerns about flooding in Mississippi, as well as various environmental problems.

Ascension and St. James parish officials say they are interested in giving an already proposed freshwater diversion on the Mississippi River near Convent a second function as an emergency release valve to send hurricane surge back into the river.

State Rep. Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, who represents Livingston, Ascension, St. James and St. John, said levees may not be the answer for the entire region.

“When you have a drainage problem at your house and the toilet backs up, do you raise the toilet or do you fix the drainage?” Schexnayder asked. “And you know, that is basically what we’re doing with levees. We’re raising the outlet. We’re not fixing the drain.”

But concerns have been raised about whether injecting brackish surge water into the Mississippi, which supplies drinking water to communities down river, is a good idea and whether the diversion would be large enough to have any significant effect.

In the meantime, Ascension Parish officials have improved problems in internal drainage in Sorrento that Isaac brought to light and are continuing with existing parish levee projects. The parish also bought two automatic sandbagging machines to speed up future bagging efforts.

Livingston Parish is looking at improving emergency communications and drainage in the southern part of the parish.

Roussel said that since Isaac, St. James Parish has focused on collecting detailed satellite-based data to aid in future sandbagging efforts. He said the system will enable the parish to pinpoint what homes are likely to flood, down to inches, as water rises.

At the same time, Bill Roux, East Ascension drainage director, cautioned about big plans based on one event without more evidence of a trend.

“You should not, as it stands right now, try to plan your whole drainage around what happen with Isaac,” Roux said.

“Isaac, as the situation stands right now, is an outlier. It is way out on the extreme,” he said. “It is a ‘perfect storm’-type situation.”