Letter to the Editor

Willowridge Levee: Northern alignment will cause flooding - says developer

Letters to the Editor
October 11, 2007 at 10:32 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Letter to the Editor
Photo provided by Rathborne Land Company
To the Editor:

Rathborne Land Company has been actively involved in the effort to bring levee protection to the west bank of St. Charles Parish for many years. Despite our efforts, we have been viciously attacked by certain individuals and groups and actually accused of blocking the effort to build a hurricane protection levee.

It is time to set the record straight. My company has already donated a three mile-long strip of land to St. Charles Parish to make room for a levee. As far as I know, we are the only landowner to donate this much property to the levee effort.

We have also offered to donate the remainder of the land needed to create a levee along our property. Despite this offer, a small group of people have launched bitter and groundless attacks both on my company and on me personally, claiming that Rathborne is responsible for the lack of a levee on the West Bank of St. Charles Parish.

This claim is ludicrous, as any party in the levee effort will attest. But more importantly, the most vocal critic of my company and me has kept hidden from the public her own conflict of interest in this issue.

The facts are these. The "northern alignment" of the levee initially proposed by the Corps of Engineers will result in flooding in Willowridge. This isn't my opinion - this is a fact, a conclusion reached by the Parish's own independent study. And we won't stand by and let the 400 families who live in that community be flooded by a poorly planned levee when an easy and less expensive alternative exists.

We are very proud of the fact that no home in Willowridge has ever flooded in the more than 20 years since the first home was built. While other communities in St. Charles Parish and across the area have suffered catastrophic flooding over the past 20 years, not a single home in Willowridge has ever been damaged by rising rainwater.

The reason for this is not luck. The reason is that my company cares about issues like drainage and we have set aside nearly 300 acres south of Willowridge as an area to "detain" flooding rains until the Parish drainage system can handle the water. This isn't land that just happens to be available for the purpose - it has been part of our drainage plan with the parish for years. As this area can handle up to two feet of water, we have a total of nearly 700 acre/feet of emergency storm water detention to prevent flooding in Willowridge. In fact, this detention area benefits the entire basin draining into the Cousins Canal.

And therein lies the very simple issue at the heart of this matter. The northern alignment of the levee will cut off those acres of rainwater detention - detention that is crucial to protecting homes in Willowridge from flooding. Our own analysis of computer models as well as independent studies show that cutting off this drainage will result in flooding during the so-called "100-year storm." Despite the name, this type of storm has occurred several times during Willowridge's history.

One severe rainfall, the May 8, 1995 event, would have put well over four feet of water into the Willowridge community if the levee had been in place in the proposed northern route. This would have resulted in extensive home flooding. But because of the drainage detention, Willowridge homes stayed dry while thousands of homes across the metropolitan area were damaged.

Pumping station not good solution

Our critics say there is a solution to this problem - build a pumping station. That is certainly a theoretical option. But let's look at the facts:

1) The Parish estimates the cost of a similar pumping station required elsewhere in the levee at nearly $20 million.

2) The Corps of Engineers will not pay for these pumping stations, as they believe them to be "drainage improvements" rather than mandated "hurricane protection."

3) This cost translates into roughly $50,000 for every homeowner in Willowridge.

4) Residents of Ormond, which has experienced the kind of flooding Willowridge has escaped, have been waiting years for the Parish to fully fund much less expensive pumping improvements in their community. Drainage basins across the area are in need of millions of dollars of improvements. The Parish has not been able to accumulate enough money to pay for the drainage improvements needed now in Ormond and other areas of the community. How can we expect the Parish pay $20 million for a pumping station in Willowridge when the money for much smaller needs is unavailable?

Clearly, the proposed northern alignment is a bad idea. While Rathborne is ready to help the levee project in any way we can - including donating more land - we won't be part of any "solution" that creates more flooding danger than it eliminates. The northern alignment is just such a "solution."

So what's the alternative? We need levee protection on the West Bank of St. Charles Parish. Is there a solution that does not flood Willowridge?

There certainly is. The solution is the "Southern Levee Alignment," recommended by the Parish and its independent experts. The southern alignment moves the levee further south as it passes by the Willowridge area. This preserves the drainage area needed to keep Willowridge from flooding. My company has offered to donate the land required for the levee to pass through this area.

So why did Ms. Allison Prendergast so vocally attack my company and me personally, in this very newspaper, for our support of the southern alignment?

The southern alignment allows for a small amount of land that we own south of Willowridge - about 80 acres - to be developed, assuming all needed permits are obtained. What Ms. Prendergast conveniently failed to disclose throughout all of her vocal attacks on me is that our proposed new community would go behind her home. With the northern alignment, the area behind her home will forever remain undeveloped.

Ms. Prendergast omitted this information while viciously attacking my character in this newspaper, in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and on the Internet. She chose not to disclose that she keeps a basketball goal and until recently parked her car on the stub street which leads to our proposed development. Without Willowridge Phase VI, that stub street essentially becomes her private driveway; the land behind her never to be developed. It seems that she does not want to allow new residents of St. Charles Parish to enjoy the same lifestyle that she now enjoys.

The residents of the West Bank of St. Charles Parish deserve a levee. They also deserve honest discussion about the placement of that levee. Whether or not Willowridge Phase VI should be developed is a completely separate matter from any discussion about the best location for a levee alignment. Lumping Phase VI into the discussion, as Ms. Prendergast has done consistently, hides the true issues that should guide any discussion of the levee alignment.

Her repeated claims that we don't care about the residents of St. Charles Parish are both particularly nasty and untrue. Ms. Prendergast did not mention in her letter to this paper, as she cited various permits and studies, that my company applied for a permit from the Corps of Engineers to improve the existing Willowridge perimeter levee.

We asked the Corps of Engineers to allow us, at our own expense, to restore the levee to its original height to reduce the chance of any flooding from storm surge. The Corps never granted us the permit. We still stand ready to restore that levee to its original height - if only the Corps will grant a permit.

The issues to be considered here are not complex. The proposed northern alignment will result in flooding in Willowridge without the construction of a hugely expensive pumping station that the Parish cannot afford to pay for. The southern alignment protects Willowridge residents from rain-event flooding while eliminating or greatly reducing any need for additional pumping capacity. Those are the facts, and that is what should guide discussion on this issue.


J. Cornelius Rathborne

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