Eastbank back levee delays debatedOct 1st, 2012 | By Jessica Gonzalez | Category: news
Although both parties are split on where the blame lies for the lack of progress on the
Braithwaite to White Ditch back levee, former Councilchair Don Beshel and Parish President Billy Nungesser both agree that even if it were completed, a 12 foot back levee would not have been much help in the face of Hurricane Isaac’s storm surge and St. Bernard Parish’s 20 foot federal flood wall. However, Beshel feels that “it would’ve
helped our hearts and minds to know it was there and that our Parish President supported us.”
Nungesser’s alleged lack of support for the project was on the minds of several angry
Eastbank residents, including Beshel, at the September 19 public meeting in Braithwaite. Many chastised Nungesser for refusing to sign the bond issue
and the engineering company’s contract.
Council actions from October 2009 indicate that efforts were being made to piecemeal money together for the Braithwaite to White Ditch project, by moving funds from other Eastbank Capital Improvement and LRA projects. In May of 2009 the council adopted an ordinance appropriating funds to Fenstermaker & Associates for the engineering of the project, but by December of 2010, no contracts had been signed by the Parish President causing the council to issue a writ of mandamus.
Those aforementioned appropriation efforts gave the project a $7.5 million boost.
Beshel says that the council then asked for the administration to sign on for an $18
million bond to help them get closer to reaching the $33 million price tag, but the administration refused on two separate occasions.
“We had a little over $7 million put up for that levee in cash, the design was being worked out and it would have been no time till they were going to finish it [design],” explained Beshel. “Then some changes were made in terms of mitigation and right of
ways; the course of the project got skewed. The Corps permit should have been applied for early on, and it wasn’t, and [Nungesser] refused to sign the bond issue. Twice.”
Nungesser vehemently denies that his refusal to sign off on the $18 million bond and Fenstermaker’s contract was the reason the projects were delayed, and further adds that at the time he was presented with the bond, the project was too unfocused and loosely planned for the parish to take on the debt.
“I’m heartbroken that I couldn’t get the protection the Eastbank needed in time, but
the facts are the levee was no where near to getting started when Don Beshel presented
me with the bond,” said Nungesser. “When you bond money out you have to have a project outline with an exact amount, and they had tentative totals; they didn’t know how much the whole thing was going to cost.”
Beshel says that the initial estimate showed the project coming in at around $20 million but that was for a 10-foot elevation. A later decision to raise the 18-mile stretch to a 12-foot elevation— more in line with federal levee criteria— bumped the cost up to $33 million. He admits that a lot of the footwork as far as the design, engineering, permits and hiring contractors was done sloppily but feels that he and his council were left on their own to sort out the details without the support or help of Nungesser and his administration.
“What disturbs me the most about all of this is that he [Nungesser] was never involved in the process,” said Beshel. “I was doing a lot of things that frankly, weren’t my job. A lot of the footwork with permits and hiring contractors, and the bond issues were things that the administration should’ve been doing but weren’t—there were a lot of things that we didn’t have help with.”
As a means to get the ball rolling on signing the $18 million bond, the council passed a resolution 7 – 2 in June of 2010 that authorized the Council Chairman to “negotiate, enter and sign any and all documents for the purchase of $18 million of Revenue Bonds, Series 2010A.”
Additionally, the resolution authorized the Council Chairman to conduct all business affairs with FEMA, PPSB, the State Bond Commission, and any other local, state, or federal agency.
Nungesser says he believes “the council acted improper by letting Don Beshel sign off on the bonds, but I put politics and my beliefs aside and did what I had to do to try and help the Eastbank.”
Looking to the future, Nungesser says that it will take a federal declaration to get the non-federal levees on both the Eastbank and Westbank included into the system.
At a September 23 Senate Field Hearing, lead by Homeland Security Appropriations
Subcommittee Chair Mary Landrieu, Nungesser made the case to Landrieu, Senator David Vitter, Congressman Cedric Richmond, and Corps of Engineers Major General John Peabody that it does not make sense to have federal levees in St. Bernard and in the South end of the Eastbank, but leave the 18-mile stretch from Braithwaite to White Ditch unprotected.
He argued that if population numbers do not warrant federal protection, then Plaquemines Parish’s other resources do, especially since federal funds are repeated utilized for rebuilding after a major storm. Nungesser cited the parish’s ideal mouth-ofthe-river location for importing and exporting goods, in addition to the coal facilities, oil refineries, and seafood docks, as reasons to protect all of Plaquemines.
As far as more immediate peace of mind for Eastbank residents, Nungesser says he is
asking the state for money for buyouts as well as home raising, since many are split on what their future plans will entail.