BOUTTE - After last years' improbably active hurricane season, Luling resident Jeffrey Brou questioned the wisdom of staying in his low-lying neighborhood of Willowdale. Was Katrina really a 100-year-storm event - or a harbinger of more superstorms to come?
Brou and other residents began paying close attention to what was going with the levees.
"If something isn't done, we're going to move," he said.
Even after Katrina showed what a big hurricane can do, and could have done to St. Charles parish had it hit just 20 miles further west, it seemed that nothing was being done to speed up protection of our parish.
Like Brou, many residents are concerned that it's just a matter of time before another Katrina knocks on our parish door - and right now that door is wide open.
Storm surge is a major concern of our low-lying towns, "The lack of high land in the parish creates little resistance towards that pile of water getting pushed inland," said Aaron Ertel, Sr., Emergency Operations Center coordinator in a recent talk.
"If Katrina would have made landfall further west, our water levels would have been from 17-23 feet."
Finally, it looks like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is ready to move forward with the “Donaldsonville to the Gulf of Mexico” hurricane protection levee.
After several months of discussion, a new modification to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) hurricane levee alignment has put it in the lead among four alignments being considered by Corps. They will choose an alignment by the end of December barring any hold-ups.
If approved, St. Charles Parish could be partially protected by this levee in as little as four and a half years - even sooner if congress puts a rocket booster under the project and speeds up pre-construction phase.
Alignment protects the most people
Of the four alternatives, the GIWW alignment got a real boost when it was modified to include heavily populated areas of Jefferson, Orleans and Plaquemines parishes as well as St. Charles.
"GIWW's advantage is that it protects the entire population of the west bank of the Mississippi River up to Bayou Lafourche, including Lafitte," Donaldsonville to the Gulf of Mexico project manager Frank Duarte told the St. Charles Herald Guide.
Not only does this alignment provide protection for the largest population and double the land area of other alignments, it also is the shortest levee of 23 miles, verses 53 miles for the Hwy 90 levee alignment.
Because it is the shortest, and protects the most people, it is also the optimum alignment if and when the Corps decides to beef it up for Category 5 protection - an option already being considered. "By having a shorter levee, the costs should be lower because a cat 5 levee would have to be very very high," says Duarte.
Even the Corps of Engineers is re-thinking their 100-year-storm event protection requirements after last season. Whenever feasible, they are considering building levees strong and high enough to withstand cat 5 hurricanes. Before the events of last season, levees that could withstand cat 3 storms were adequate. The corps had second thoughts after both Katrina and Rita came alarmingly close to shore as cat 5 mega storms.
St. Charles Parish should still continue construction of the West Bank Protection Levee, says Duarte citing the overseas flood control projects in Holland that often use two lines of protection in case one is breached.
"Since the GIWW levee would be close to the Gulf, if a big storm comes it would hit that first. St. Charles Parish local levees would offer secondary protection in the event the primary protection is overtopped" says Duarte. The alignment would include two gates, one across Bayou Perot and one across Bayou Barataria. These gates would remain open unless a storm threatened.
If this alignment is chosen, Duarte says St. Charles parish would have difficulty getting reimbursed from the federal government for the West Bank Protection levee currently under construction since the GIWW alignment would not follow the same path.
Environmental groups oppose the plan
Environmental groups can slow down the process dramatically, especially if the GIWW alternative is chosen.
"We would like Congress to clear out a path so that we could work faster. The way things stand, the corps must follow the law, and the law says that we must protect wetlands," said Duarte in a statement he made just after Katrina hit.
Environmentalists are scared that if they allow the levee to be built in the wetlands, even with the promise that those wetlands won't be developed, sooner or later landowners will make a move to develop the wetlands protected by the levees.
Richard Hartman, spokesman for the Habitat Conservation Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service, told Duarte in an email just days ago that there were "much greater drawbacks" than what Duarte presented. These included: the destruction of thousands of acres of marsh, disturbance of fishery migratory routes, and development of wetlands within the levees.
"The question will be, how will the COE compensate for all the direct and indirect impacts to marsh that would arise from the various alternatives. That cost will be huge and must be included in the consideration of project alternatives. While from an engineering perspective, the shortest route may seem the cheapest, it is not necessarily the best or the most inexpensive," warns Hartman.
Although Duarte admits that Hartman has valid concerns, he says that they are overblown and that the Corps will be working hand in hand with environmental groups to preserve the wetlands and the fisheries they support. "There's a lot of mistrust, especially in the environmental community," he says.
Environmental groups prefer the Bayou Lafourche Levee Alignment which would place the levee along populated areas.
Another potential hold-up is the price tag
Another potential hold-up is the price tag - 500 million dollars for the GIWW alignment. The four and a half year time frame is dependant upon the Lafourche Basin Levee district and the department of transportation coming up with at least 35 percent (over 140 million dollars) of the money, as the federal government will only foot the bill for up to 65 percent of the project.
Duarte hopes the price tag will drop as sky-high post Katrina construction costs settle down.