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West Bank dodges bullet from Isaac

By Kyle Barnett -   Sep 06, 2012

The diagonal lines represent storm tracks. Based on this model the parish predicted a large slow moving hurricane producing heavy rain and high winds that would result in long-term power outages.
The diagonal lines represent storm tracks. Based on this model the parish predicted a large slow moving hurricane producing heavy rain and high winds that would result in long-term power outages.

Many people who live on the West Bank were told if a slow moving hurricane or tropical storm hovered over the area for an extended period of time their homes would likely be flooded.

Parish President V.J. St. Pierre said Hurricane Isaac dropped 15 inches of rain and strong winds pelted the area over a 57-hour period, but only five homes have been reported flooded in the parish so far.

For many in parish government, the Hurricane Isaac model was what they expected to be a nightmare scenario. Having the highest winds in the state recorded at Bayou Gauche at 110 miles-per-hour would seem to back that up.

Emergency Operations Center Director Scott Whelchel said it was close to the worst case scenario, but not quite there.

"The storm track basically determines what you are going to get," Whelchel said. "I talked with a surge specialist at the national weather service. By his estimates maybe a 40 mile deviation to the left in terms of the storm track to the west and we would have gotten the amount of powerful surge on the east side of that storm that would have inundated a lot of the West Bank, not just Willowridge. The worst case scenario is you see everything south of Highway 90 underwater."

No homes in Willowridge and Willowdale subdivisions flooded.

St. Pierre said the reason those homes did not flood was because parish workers were working before, during and after the storm to ensure the parish’s flood protection was running smoothly.

"Those guys did a hell of a job. Prior to the storm those guys worked seven straight days," St. Pierre said. "Then they worked around the clock four days during the event. So 11 days without even a day off. They were exhausted."

The parish’s pumps worked throughout the storm, however, a problem arose with devices on the front of the stations called bar screen cleaners. The cleaners clear debris to keep the pumps from being blocked.

St. Pierre said the cleaners cost millions of dollars in federal grants, but came close to stopping the pumps after they malfunctioned.

"Large tree branches broke off and went into the canals and floated into these bar screen cleaners and it can’t handle that kind of weight and it dislodged the screeners from the track," St. Pierre said. "Before we had the bar screens we had to go out there manually with a guy tied to a rope. We almost had to do that this time. Luckily, this time we were able to shut down three pumps at a time and get that cleaned and go to the next three and get them cleaned."

Whelchel said public works employees extracted the debris from the bar screen cleaners.

"In the middle of the storm, during 50 mile-per-hour winds, trees fell on bar screen cleaners so the pumps became inoperable," Whelchel said. "(Public works) are out there in tropical storm force winds pulling trees off of the bar screen cleaners so they can keep operating because if those pumps go all bets are off."

Whelchel said the work done by the Public Works Department kept the West Bank from flooding.

In fact, four out of the five homes reported flooded during the storm were on the East Bank in Montz.

St. Pierre said that number would have been much higher if it were not for the East Bank levee that was constructed last year. That levee does not include Montz.

"If we wouldn’t have had the East Bank levee we would have been another St. John Parish," St. Pierre said.

St. Pierre said the water rose seven feet and one inch on the East Bank levee.

"The levee on the Kenner side is a plus 16’, on the Norco side it is a plus 19’ by the Spillway," he said. "The levee worked excellent."

Whelchel said despite homes on the West Bank not flooding during the storm the threat was still there.

"We were set up for worst case, hence the mandatory evacuation order," Whelchel said. "If anyone thinks this was the worst we could ever get and it didn’t get in their homes ‘therefore I never need to leave’ that is absolutely inaccurate."

Whelchel said Isaac was a 50-year storm and that it was distinctive in that it was slow moving and it was very large. He said despite those facts, because Isaac was a Category 1 hurricane a lot of people decided to stay rather than evacuate.

"What I really want to convey to residents because they really get hung up on the wind category," Whelchel said. "In 2010 the weather service de-coupled the storm surge from the wind scale recognizing the fact that one does not necessarily give you a picture of what the other one is."

Both St. Pierre and Whelchel said although the Public Works Department was successful along with the East Bank levee, the building of a West Bank levee is still a high priority for the parish.

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