Along the parish's southern flank, most of the west bank section is without any significant hurricane levee; this is a fact of life that west bank parish residents have grown accustomed to.
In the several computer models constructed by the St. Charles Parish Emergency Operations Center, almost all of the west bank, aside from selected areas along the Mississippi River Levee, could be inundated with over 10 ft. of water should a slow moving Category 2 hurricane hit the parish directly.
Putting this into a storm context, Hurricane Katrina was officially recorded as a Category 3 storm and Tropical Storm Isidore in 2002 submerged Highway 90 in the parish.
Four phases comprise the west bank hurricane protection system.
Phase III, Ellington Plantation, will be a 2.2 mile stretch from Holder Estates to Peterson Canal, is St. Charles Parish's most vulnerable section. There is almost no protection, and this section is still in the pre-application phase. It has yet to even be approved by the Corps.
Phase I, the Magnolia Ridge section, will consist of 3.4 miles from the Sunset Drainage District to Holder Estates. The phase is permitted and the project is under construction by the Lafourche Basin Levee District.
"The problem that we had in Phase I, the majority of the land was donated to us by Rathborne, but there were individual landowners that had be taken to court," said Director of Public Works Gregory Bush, who is retired from the Army Corps of Engineers. "We expropriated the land for the benefit of public safety." Bush said that the completed height is to be 7 ft.
Phase II, Willowridge, will be 4.2 miles from Peterson Canal to west guide levee of Davis Pond. It has yet to be constructed, but there is some protection from a levee that Rathborne Real Estate Developers built in Willowdale and Willowridge areas. However, the Corps has prohibited Rathborne or the parish from repairing the small 3-foot levee behind Willowridge in recent years.
"All of our focus is on Phase II and to get that done," said Bush.
Phase IV, Cajun Paradise, from Paradis Canal to the railroad, is a 0.9 mile levee built during the time of Hurricane Lili in 1992. While almost complete, it is still in need of some improvements.
These phases are being constructed and funded with Lafourche Basin Levee District and St. Charles Parish, not the federal government. Although the federal government is not funding the project, the parish must get plans approved and permitted by the Corps.
While all of these projects are being studied or completed, the Corps is looking at a hurricane levee outside of these four phases. Recently, at a parish council meeting, Corps Director Frank Duarte endorsed a plan along the Intracoastal Waterway. The problem is that it is still in the planning stage as well, with a 2007 completion date for study and a 3 year building timeline.
While the calendar ticks away, St. Charles Parish's west bank is forced to live through another hurricane season with little or no protection.
Bush said the processes that it takes to construct a levee are what chew up most of the time. "You have to do a reconnaissance study; that takes two years automatically. The reconnaissance has to be accepted and approved by the Corps and Congress. Then, the Corps authorizes a feasibility study, which can take anywhere from 3 to 7 years," said Bush, adding that, all told, it can take 10 to 15 years to start a federal levee.
Ironically, even after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused billions of dollars in damage, the time to study, fund and build a levee has not shortened. By most accounts, the processes remained the same. Parish President Albert Laque decried the bureaucratic red tape that St. Charles Parish has had to endure to get a west bank levee.
Bush said that levee that parish is building with Lafourche will not be redundant if the Corps builds one further south. "It will protect us from water from Lakes Cataouatche and Salvador," said Bush. "Regardless, we will need this levee."
Unfortunately, with hurricane season beginning, the parish needed that levee completed yesterday.