This article was published in The Louisiana Weekly in the Oct. 8, 2012 edition.
Residents of the Jefferson Parish town of Jean Lafitte, 25 miles south of New Orleans, hope a levee can be built soon after they were inundated by Isaac in August and a string of earlier storms. Lafitte and neighboring Barataria and Crown Point missed out on post-Katrina levees that communities further north received. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has nixed that idea of a levee for the area but the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority or CPRA says it's trying to find the funds.
Last week, Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner said "homes and businesses here were damaged by storm surge in Hurricane Rita, Tropical Storm Ike and Hurricane Isaac." After Isaac struck, 300 homes in the tri-town area had to be gutted and tarps were put on roofs of other properties.
Kerner said "all we have is a man-made, potato levee built 30 or 40 years ago that can protect up to about five and a half feet." Storm surge from Isaac was six feet in spots, however. He said "the Army Corps has spent over $14 billion in areas all around us since Katrina, but we were overlooked."
A year and a half ago, the Lafitte Area Independent Levee District hired The Shaw Group, engineering consultants in Baton Rouge, to asess the cost of building a ring levee around Lafitte, Barataria and Crown Point. Kerner said Shaw figured it would cost $300 million.
A levee for Lafitte was included in the state's $50 billion, draft Coastal Master Plan, unveiled in January, but the structure wasn't slated until late in the plan's 50-year span. That wasn't soon enough for local officials. "We attended CPRA's community meetings last year and this year, and met with CPRA this spring in Baton Rouge," Kerner said. After that, the project was rescheduled for an earlier period. "They agreed on a ring levee for us to be built between now and 2032," he said.
The levee is earmarked for $870 million in the state's master plan. "But we can get the same protection for $300 million for 10,000 people in Lafitte, Barataria and Crown Point," Mayor Kerner said. "No section of Lafitte would be left out. The ring levee would be built on top of our existing levees. It wouldn't take up any more ground." The less-expensive version, however, wouldn't be as high as the 16 feet that CPRA is considering.
Kerner wants construction to start as soon as possible. "I'm hoping we can get it expedited on the state's list of projects," he said. He ran through the reasons that Lafitte should be protected. "We're a destination for recreational fishermen from all over the country and the world. We're an historic area dating back to Jean Lafitte, who was in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. We bring in tourists and we put seafood on the table in New Orleans. We have the state's biggest shellfish plant, Lafitte Frozen Seafood. Barataria Bay is the state's largest shellfish estuary. We have oil and gas interests."
As for the state's higher cost figure, CPRA executive director Jerome Zeringue said "our cost estimate is for a protection system for a larger geographical area, encompassing not only Lafitte, Barataria and Crown Point but other areas of the Barataria Basin." He said cost estimates in the state's coastal master plan used federal design and construction standards but the state and the Corps have discussed whether alternatives might achieve the same results.
Zeringue also said "we may opt to build in increments--for 25-year protection, then 50-year, then 100-year." Protection against a 100-year storm is for a hurricane that has a 1 in 100 chance of occurring in any given year. Such storms can hit in consecutive years, however, or not at all during the course of a century.
Mayor Kerner said the Corps' recently completed, Greater New Orleans levees have left Lafitte more vulnerable than ever to storm surge. "Billions of dollars of new protection in areas north and east of us are good for them but have been negative for us," he said. "We predicted that the Corps' new, $1 billion West Closure project and pump station to protect the West Bank of New Orleans would mean more water for us." That system prevented storm surge from rushing up the Harvey and Algiers Canals during Isaac. "The water was blocked off from the West Bank but it had to go somewhere and it came to us," Kerner said. Lafitte is roughly ten miles south of the West Closure Complex.
The Army Corps considers population size when approving projects, Kerner noted. Lafitte's population fell by 5 percent in the last decade and stands at around 2,000 today. Lafitte, Barataria and Crown Point combined have between 8,000 and 10,000 residents. That's small compared with some other municipalities nearby. But Kerner said the Corps plans to spend $1.4 billion on levees in Plaquemines Parish, much of which is lightly populated. The Corps in August authorized improvements for levees from New Orleans to Venice in Plaquemines.
Also in Plaquemines Parish, the Army Corps might spend $820 million on a Mississippi River diversion at Myrtle Grove to build coastal area. "We're worried the Myrtle Grove diversion will raise our water table," Kerner said. As the crow flies, Lafitte is 15 miles west of Myrtle Grove.
Meanwhile, oil-and-gas pipelines and channels that cross the area leave Lafitte vulnerable to land sinking and erosion and to rising water, Kerner said.
"Isaac was the first time that some communities in St. John and St. Tammany Parishes outside the Greater New Orleans levee system lost homes to flooding," Kerner said. "But in Lafitte, we've been hit over and over again since Katrina. People here have repeatedly gutted and rebuilt flooded homes and businesses. They don't wait for government help and volunteers to arrive. They start in immediately."
The U.S. Army Corps has yet to approve a levee for Lafitte, however. Ricky Boyett, Army Corps spokesman in New Orleans, said "the Corps' Donaldsonville to the Gulf Feasibility Study, initiated in 2002, included ring levee alternatives for the Lafitte-Crown Point-Barataria area. Unfortunately, none of the alternatives analyzed were identified to be economically justified." He said the Corps would need Congressional authorization and appropriations to reconsider the project.
In order for the Corps to approve a traditional, civil works project, every dollar spent has to reduce expected damage by at least a dollar, Boyett said. The Corps figured the Lafitte-area ring levee would need lift-levee work, T-Walls shaped like upside down Ts, intertidal structures, floodgates, pump-station protection, road and highway ramps, and "borrow pits" or sand boxes in areas crossing marshes. Costs would exceed benefits, the Corps decided. The area's population and expected storm damage to homes, businesses, schools and other structures were taken into acount, Boyett said.
Zeringue at CPRA said "Congress authorized $100 million in hurricane protection for Lafitte back in 2007 but the Corps hasn't done anything." CPRA has allocated $16.2 million to Lafitte for tidal levees and will keep working on protection for the area, especially as more funds become available, he said. The state is collaborating with Jefferson Parish and Lafitte on levee-cost estimates.
Zeringue said "we're working with our Congressional delegation to get this moving ASAP. In addition, we're attempting to direct Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars to a comprehensive approach to protection for the Lafitte area. Rather than reacting to flooding disasters, we're working with FEMA to make proactive investments."
The RESTORE Act, passed by Congress last spring, may be a source of funds for Lafitte's ring levee, Zeringue said. The RESTORE Act devotes 80 percent of any fines to be levied against BP under the Clean Water Act to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas. Those fines could total between $5 billion and $22 billion and the state is banking on its share to finance coastal restoration.
If the tri-town levee is built, it won't be too soon for commercial shrimper Ronald Dufrene. His slab house in Lafitte has been flooded four times since Katrina. "We lost everything in Isaac and gutted our house again," he said last week. "We're planning to have it raised next month to nine feet to meet Jefferson Parish requirements. We're living there with no sheetrock now and the lizards are driving my wife crazy."
During Isaac, houses that had been raised in Lafitte to meet new building codes escaped flooding.
Speaking by phone from his shrimp boat, Dufrene said "levees should have been built near the coast before they went up around New Orleans. We've been losing land down here for a while. I'm out fishing the Gulf today and we're in water that used to be land 30 years ago."
But Scott Eustis, coastal wetland specialist with the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, cautioned that "levees alone are not enough to protect our communities. We need our coastal lines of defense to make us safe." He said Lafitte needs a plan incorporating the Modified Charleston Method or MCM to reduce wetlands loss.
Last year, the New Orleans district of the Corps adopted a formula used in the Corps' Charleston district, altered it for south Louisiana and called it the Modified Charleston Method. The MCM considers a project's impact on wetlands and decides what must be done to mitigate any negative effects. "We're concerned that current plans for the Lafitte-area ring levee would destroy hundreds of acres of natural storm protection provided by our coastal wetlands," Eustis said.
Several Louisiana politicians have criticized the MCM approach, however. Senator Mary Landrieu and other members of the state's Congressional delegation have said it might work elsewhere but because of Louisiana's rapid land loss, more flexibility is needed.
As for the state's support for a ring levee, Zeringue at CPRA said "Lafitte is at the center of an important fishing industry and has a unique culture that's certainly worth saving. Geographically, Lafitte and neighboring communities serve as a linchpin to protecting an even larger area. If the ecosystem surrounding Lafitte were allowed to erode away, the Gulf of Mexico would be that much closer to the Greater New Orleans area."
When asked if more Lafitte-area residents will move before the ring levee is built, Mayor Kerner said "a few will go. But many families have lived here for generations and are devoted to our way of life. They've suffered from floodwater but they don't want to leave." end