Council passes controversial levee ordinancesJun 1st, 2010 | By Frank McCormack | Category: news
Long considered the weakest link in Plaquemines Parish’s Westbank levee protection system, the private, non-federal levees between Oakville and Diamond are now on a faster track to adoption into the federal New Orleans to Venice levee system.
After weeks of wrangling among the Plaquemines Parish Council and the parish administration over the non-federal back levees, the council voted unanimously at its May 27 meeting to begin the process of transferring the levees from private landholders to the Corps of Engineers.
Under the plan, the parish will conduct surveys and title examinations and begin to solicit the donation of rights-of-way and rights of ingress and egress along the levees. Actually accepting the donations will require additional votes of the council. After the levee rights-of-way pass into the parish’s hands, the parish will then turn them over to the Corps.
The proposition sounds simple, but it is crucial to rushing the levees into federal hands. Corps officials have said that, if the parish handles the land acquisition work for the levees, it could shave up to one and a half years off the timeline for moving the levees into the federal system.
The deficiency of the non-federal levees, particularly the stretch from La Reussite to Diamond, has come into the spotlight of late as personnel and equipment travel down Highway 23 toward Venice to combat the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
In view of the threat that flooding on Highway 23 could pose to oil spill recovery efforts in the southern end of Plaquemines, Parish President Billy Nungesser specifically included the armoring of the back levees in his April 29 state of emergency declaration.
Since then, some members of the council have questioned the legitimacy of including the “possible overflow and/or breach of back levees on the West Bank” in the emergency declaration.
At the council’s May 27 meeting, District 3 representative Jerry Hodnett offered two measures that dealt with that portion of the emergency declaration – an ordinance that sought to extract the back levees from the state of emergency and a resolution to seek an Attorney General’s opinion “as to whether a State of Emergency can be declared based upon the probability of strong winds and high tides.”
While Hodnett deferred the ordinance to amend the state of emergency declaration, the resolution seeking an Attorney General’s opinion on the matter passed with a 4-1-2 vote.
Council members Hodnett, Burghart Turner, Jay Friedman and Lynda Banta voted for the measure, while Council member Stuart Guey voted against it. Representatives Anthony Buras and Marla Cooper abstained from voting. Council members Don Beshel and Keith Hinkley were not present for the vote.
Shortly after the state of emergency was declared April 29, strong southerly winds and unusually high tides threatened to overtop the back levee and potentially flood Highway 23. Parish officials and Louisiana National Guardsmen sandbagged low points in the levee and, though the levee was overtopped at two points, water never reached Highway 23.
The flood threat came just a day before President Barack Obama visited Venice in his first trip to tour the Gulf Coast.
The threat prompted Steve Mathies, executive director of the state’s Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration, to issue a letter to Parish President Billy Nungesser May 5 that urged the parish to consider “raising these low levees to at least +3.5 feet. … We believe that it would be prudent to raise the low levees in order to avoid flooding of LA-23.”
The ordinances passed May 27 do not authorize the parish to maintain or improve the private levees. The stretch of levee from Oakville to La Reussite is primarily parish-owned, while the reach from La Reussite to Diamond is privately held and commonly called the Citrus Lands Back Levee. In the past, council members have questioned the legality of maintaining and improving the non-public levee.
However, as long as the state of emergency exists, the low-lying back levees may continue to receive attention, especially now that hurricane season has started. The parish’s renewed state of emergency declaration, extended from May 29 through June 27, specifically mentions the May 5 letter from Mathies in which the state cautioned the parish of the continued flood threat and “requested the Parish to raise such levee to a minimum of +3.5” feet.