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Houma Tribe Wants Storm Protection For Its Coastal Towns

Posted: 09/27/11 06:34 PM ET

This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Sept. 26, 2011 edition.

The United Houma Nation, with its family tree firmly planted in Louisiana's coastal parishes for the last 300 years, doesn't want to see its centers drown as the wetlands shrink. The tribe plans to form a delegation soon to speak with Governor Bobby Jindal about needed protection, Houma Nation Principal Chief Thomas Dardar Jr. said last week.

Louisiana officials, meanwhile, have solicited ideas for saving the coast in a series of community meetings, including one in New Orleans on Sept. 14. That's because the state expects to receive billions of dollars following the BP spill to spend on restoration projects.

The Houma Nation's 17,100 members live in Lafourche, Terrebonne, Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines and St. Mary Parishes, mostly in areas unprotected by levees, Dardar said. Homes and businesses in tribal communities were flooded or destroyed in Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike, and were pounded by Tropical Storm Lee this month.

"The Army Corps closed the MR-GO channel a couple of years ago, offering some protection from storm surge for our communities in St. Bernard Parish," Dardar said. "But this month Lee flooded low-lying Lafitte in Jefferson Parish, and Grande Caillou, Pointe aux Chene, Jean Charles Island and Bayou Dularge in Terrebonne. And Lee was just a rainmaker, not a hurricane."

He continued, saying "the Army Corps is working on its Morganza to the Gulf project but many of our towns will be outside of its protection."

Last week, Garret Graves, chairman of Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said "we could not agree with the chief more." He said Governor Jindal has made record investments in hurricane protection and coastal restoration while the federal government has been on the sidelines. Graves also said that the Army Corps' own actions have contributed to wetlands loss.

For its part, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week said it has a batch of levee and marsh-building projects in the works for Southeast Louisiana.

The Houma Nation worries it might be excluded from those projects. Dardar said "we want levees built for our communities that always seem to flood. Our people have lived here for many generations, and we feel steps can be taken to provide protection." Members of the Houma Nation aren't eager to move away from the Gulf, he noted.

"In the coastal planning process, we want a seat at the table, to be in on discussions and have a voice," Dardar said. "We don't want to be told of decisions after the fact."

Dardar said that for every mile of land it crosses, a tidal surge associated with a hurricane or storm is reduced by one foot. "We want to see the barrier islands along the coastal parishes rebuilt," he said. "The Army Corps could use the silt that they're already dredging from the mouth of the Mississippi."

At the Sept. 14, coastal master-plan community meeting in New Orleans, Janie Luster and Maryal Mewherter of the Houma Nation Tribal Council and Chris Chiasson, a Pointe aux Chene resident and tribal member, spoke about the need for protection during a question-and-answer session. In Houma the night before, Dardar coached them for the meeting. He wanted to attend, but it was a busy time at Marlin Services, the Houma fabrication and construction firm where he works.

In the New Orleans meeting, Kirk Rhinehart, chief of planning for Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said "we're in the process of developing an updated master plan that will be used to guide future investments in coastal restoration and protection. The state believes it could receive between $20 billion and $50 billion over the next fifty years from a variety of sources, including potential funds related to the BP oil spill."

That's lots of money but it won't be enough to pay for every proposal. "We're faced with very difficult decisions about which projects should be included in the plan," Rhinehart said. "The state will begin receiving BP's Natural Resources Damage Assessment or NRDA dollars, primarily for projects, over the course of the next year," he noted. BP penalty fines for barrels spilled are another expected source. The Louisiana legislature will vote on the state's master plan next spring, he said.

Rhinehart discussed project funding. "Congress approves funding for Water Resources Development Act or WRDA projects and federal levee projects, but not NRDA projects and state-only-funded Coastal Impact Assistance Program projects," he said. "Our intention is that the state master plan will guide those federal investments."

Meanwhile, Houma Nation members are monitoring several Army Corps projects, planned for the coast. Rene Poche, Army Corps spokesman in New Orleans, said the Morganza to the Gulf project will use earthen levees, floodgates and a lock complex to protect marshland and reduce storm and flood damage in the greater Houma area--including parts of Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes. The project was Congressionally authorized in 2007, but will exceed approved costs by more than 20% in order to meet post-Katrina design criteria. So it has to be reauthorized by Congress, Poche said.

Morganza to the Gulf construction costs will exceed $1 billion and will be shared, with the feds paying 65% and the state 35%. Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District are the project's local sponsors.

Poche said the Corps is studying the feasibility of "structural alternatives" in another project, called "Donaldsonville to the Gulf," covering 2,400 square miles in parts of Ascension, Assumption, St. James, St. John the Baptist, Lafourche, St. Charles, Jefferson, Orleans and Plaquemines Parishes. Residents of the Jefferson Parish town of Lafitte, including tribal members, are keeping an eye on that plan. "Lafitte is included in all of the alternatives, either by being on the protected side of the alternative, or as a ring levee feature," Poche said. A ring levee circling Lafitte, Barataraia and Crown Point in Jefferson Parish, proposed by local officials, could include existing levees and encompass nearly every home in the three communities.

In Lafitte, which is 22 miles south of New Orleans, "dozens of homes owned by Houma Nation members were flooded this month during Lee because there's nothing to block water from coming in," said Greg Creppel, Houma Nation member and former Lafitte resident. Without levee protection, the town of Lafitte could be gone in another 20 years, he predicted. "Our members have been overlooked in Lafitte, and also in Venice and Buras in Plaquemines and in Houma. It's time we started fighting for our rights."

Creppel said leadership from Chief Dardar and Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner had helped the Lafitte area cope with Katrina rebuilding, oil from last year's BP spill and flooding from Lee. Kerner was elected to his sixth term as mayor earlier this year.

Creppel said "Chief Dardar tells us that if each Houma Nation member take someone's hand, then hand by hand we can lift each other and find solutions to our problems on the coast. We've really needed that kind of inspiration."

Dardar, who was inaugurated chief in June of last year, said he hasn't been to Baton Rouge, the state capital, to ask for anything. "I have been to Washington, DC a few times, to talk with Congressional representatives about our more than 30-year request that the federal government recognize the Houma Nation as a tribe." If he can talk with Governor Jindal about coastal protection, Dardar also wants to discuss the tribe's frustration at not being federally acknowledged.

Dardar continued, saying "I've spoken with the Coast Guard about resources for our fishing folk since the BP spill. But since I took office, I haven't spoken with anyone at the Army Corps."

On a related note, since Mark Ford left as Jindal's director of Indian Affairs last year, that position has been vacant. -end-