With hurricane season set to start June 1, St. Charles Parish President Albert Laque expressed extreme frustration in trying to complete a hurricane protection levee for the parish's vulnerable southern flank, the west bank. This is especially taxing, considering the near miss St. Charles Parish experienced with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
"We were lucky last year," said Public Information Officer Steve Sirmon, adding that time is not on the parish's side.
"The west bank hurricane levee is a work in progress," said Laque, adding that another 2 to 3 years would be needed to complete the Category 3 project.
Laque said that the biggest problems the parish faces in completion are the bureaucratic red tape that must be followed and raising the large amounts of money. Even with the renewed sense of urgency, parish officials are encountering the same obstacles as before.
Without the hurdles, Laque states emphatically a hurricane protection levee would have already been completed. "We are building it ourselves; the levee board is building it for us with taxes that St. Charles Parish collects," said Laque.
In terms of federal assistance, St. Charles Parish is currently on its own with the west bank hurricane protection levee, "As opposed to the east bank, which was an (Army) Corps of Engineers project and was federally funded," said Sirmon. It is the snail's pace with which these projects progress that aggravates Laque and Sirmon, as Sirmon noted that it took 30 years for the Corps to begin the east bank project.
On the federal level, Laque believes that the parish is lost in the shuffle, as most attention is paid to those hurricane-ravaged areas, such Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes and Louisiana's notorious repetition for corrupt politicians, thus hurting its chances for getting funding from Washington. These factors are key in Laque's reluctance to join Governor Blanco’s consolidation of levee boards, saying that the Lafourche Board does all that it can.
While St. Charles Parish has its own protection plan, the Corps has other plans. The Corps is in the feasibility stage of planning a Donaldsonville to the Gulf of Mexico hurricane project -- an all-together separate plan. In two cases, the Corps' plan could incorporate some of the west bank levee, however this project will take years to complete, as Army Corps Project Director Frank Duarte noted that the feasibility study would last until 2007. Duarte could not say with certainty when groundbreaking would begin.
According to Laque, St. Charles Parish can't wait, as another hurricane season looms in the distance. Laque said that the hurricane protection levee has been his main priority, beseeching federal and state politicians for assistance.
"We got to take care of the alligators, coons and the possums rather than the people. That is the position (the Corps) takes," said Laque, citing the environmental hurdles that the parish must mount in order to construct the levee. Due to wetland protection acts from Congress and for each acre purchased, Laque said that the parish must pay up to $8,000 for mitigation costs. These fees are taken away from actual construction, further delaying progress.
Duarte said that he understood Laque’s frustration, but added the Corps must follow federally mandated procedures. Of those, environmental laws regarding wetlands take precedent.