Westbank levee projects in limboMay 16th, 2012 | By Terri Sercovich | Category: news
Although the contract was scheduled to be signed on Wednesday, May 16, the council deferred a resolution that approves the project partnership agreement between Plaquemines Parish, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State for Westbank levee construction from Oakville to St. Jude, and levee repairs from St. Jude to Venice.
Without council approval, the contract cannot be signed, which delays the construction of the 17 New Orleans to Venice (N.O.V.) projects. The billion dollars in funding has been allotted for the levee projects for over a year now, explained Blair Rittiner, Land Superintendent for Plaquemines Parish. The council’s approval would simply permit Parish President Billy Nungesser to sign the agreement so construction on the much-anticipated levee projects can commence.
Some members of the council worried that inaction or voting the resolution down would put the 100-percent fully-funded project in jeopardy of being completed. Additionally, the delay of construction jeopardizes the flood protection of residents in the southern end the parish as well as Highway 23— the only evacuation route in the event of storms and flood waters.
The decision to defer came after several Myrtle Grove homeowners expressed their grievances that the levee would be built excluding their neighborhood from the protected area. The residents feel that the levee should include Myrtle Grove and that a flood gate should be added to give them continued access to the marsh waterways. When high water or surges approach, threatening to flood the protected area, the gate would then be closed to protect everyone.
Cost-wise, Myrtle Grove homeowners argue that with increase price of dirt needed to construct a levee, a flood gate would be the cheaper solution.
Myrtle Grove resident Mike Mudge said that the “advantages of a floodgate outweigh 10-to-1. If this was a crisis the Corps of Engineers would be sitting here today to tell you that.”
Mudge also explained that he and his neighbors understood that flood protection is essential to the entire parish, but excluding their neighborhood does not make sense.
Mudge and fellow Myrtle Grove homeowner Warren Lawrence, made it clear to the council their outrage with the Corps and the Administration for not producing the findings of a hydrologic study they requested, which was supposed to analyze the effects of a levee on the Myrtle Grove community. The request for the study was made in April of 2011, but Lawrence said that neither party has been forthcoming with the results since the Myrtle Grove Homeowners Association acquired an attorney.
Nungesser had left the meeting by this time, and did not respond to requests for comment.
After District 3 Councilman Kirk Lepine asked if delaying the approval of the resolution would put the funds in jeopardy, Mudge, who has been back and forth with the Corps and Administration on the issue for over a year, stated confidently that the parish “wouldn’t lose a dime since the money for this project has been specifically earmarked by Congress.”
But Council Chairman Byron Marinovich disagreed with that completely, saying that until the work is started, the money can be moved to another parish at any time.
Rittinier said that the Corps sometimes allows deviations on set plans, but to switch from a levee to a flood gate, a “betterment” project, means that the parish would be partially responsible for funding the gate’s construction. It also means that the parish is fully responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the gate for the entirety of its life, which is usually 50 years, Rittinier explained.
Lawrence countered that notion later in the discussion by citing the resolution in question, which states that the parish, not the Corps, is also responsible for the maintenance of the levees.
“Have you read this thing that you’re looking at today?” Lawrence asked the council. “This is going to be your responsibility.”
District 6 Councilman Burghart Turner, who represents the Myrtle Grove area, questioned the finality of the agreement, and asked if it was possible to approve it and add in the betterment once more concrete figures came in from the Corps on how much funding the parish would be responsible for.
District 4 Councilman Stuart Guey agreed, and suggested that the parish could look into bonding money for the flood gate, but would not consider that until a specific figure is presented to the council.
Although Rittinier did not have a set figure from the Corps, he said he would work on getting one. In the meantime he encouraged the council to approve the resolution so construction could at least begin while the other details got worked out.
Marinovich deferred the item, he said, so Myrtle Grove residents can try to get more information on the hydrologic study and so Rittnier can get a solid betterment cost to the council. But he explained that his personal stance on the issue was that levee work was “absolutely the most important issue the parish faces.”
He explained that although he sympathizes with the Myrtle Grove residents, he feels that “they’re holding up levee projects on both sides of the river.”
In addition to the delay in flood protection, Marinovich is also concerned with how the delay in construction adversely effects commerce.
“Are businesses going to invest in a community that doesn’t have adequate flood protection? Definitely not,” Marinovich said.
Reid McClellan, Chairman for Plaquemines Association of Business & Industry, agrees with that sentiment.
“The leaders of the business community feel it is imperative that we no longer delay levee construction throughout the parish,” McClellan stated. “While we respect the council’s wishes to know the facts involving this issue, I believe that delays in starting these projects risks losing the funding already appropriated, and jeopardizes the safety and economic growth for our parish.”
The Myrtle Grove Homeowners Association will hold a meeting May 15 at 7 p.m. at the Belle Chasse Auditorium. The resolution will be taken up again at the May 24 council meeting.