Flooding issues dominates Levee Board's year
By: GEOFFREY STOUTE
The flood fight this spring spurned by the bulging Atchafalaya River dominated the St. Mary Parish Levee District’s year in 2011.
The district led the way locally, installing a barge just as had been done in 1973 to prevent backwater flooding from the Atchafalaya River. The Atchafalaya backs up into Bayou Chene once it begins to swell, causing a domino effect in which water from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, Bayou Boeuf, Lake Palourde and other waterways all begin to back up and threaten various communities.
The barge, which was loaned to the district by McDermott International and installed in mid-May, allowed the levee district to keep the water on the protected side more than 2 feet lower than on the unprotected side.
While it is the most notable project from the flood fight, it wasn’t the only one the levee district worked on during the flood.
The board also implemented such measures as protection for communities on the parish’s west end by closing in the Franklin Canal, Yellow Bayou and Hanson Canal with sheetpile, something that Levee District Chairman Bill Hidalgo said still could be done in a day’s time if needed. Other materials also are available to protect the parish at a moment’s notice.
“We were successful throughout the whole parish in keeping homes and property (in protected areas) from being flooded,” Hidalgo said.
Both Levee District Executive Director Hilary Thibodeaux and Hidalgo noted that the five-mill property tax that St. Mary Parish voters passed in 2010 made it possible for the parish to do as much as they did during the flood fight by enabling them to leverage the revenue they already had to borrow more funds.
Without the funding, Hidalgo said the district would not have been able to do what they did in the flood fight.
Thibodeaux added, “We would have been at the mercy of whatever occurred. I think (if) any message could be provided by us, probably one of the biggest messages is more of a ‘thank you,’ (for) a vote of confidence for allowing us to do this,” Thibodeaux added.
In the aftermath, the levee district already has recouped about 70 percent of the total cost, of the 75 percent of total costs that they expect to be obligated from the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the flood fight.
“I’ve dealt with FEMA in the past (in) other lives (and) it’s been amazing how fast they’ve gotten these things obligated,” Thibodeaux said.
He said that the district will talk to other stakeholders in surrounding parishes that benefited from the installation of the barge and see if they can contribute funds for the remaining 25 percent or maybe towards the permanent structure.
“They might not be able to reimburse us (for the barge), but they might be able to participate in something going forward,” Hidalgo said.
Just as they were before the flood, the levee district has continued to work on a permanent flood control structure for Bayou Chene.
In light of this spring’s flood, though, the project has gained momentum.
“We’ve been working very closely with the Corps of Engineers looking to get a permit for that location along with taking that momentum moving forward with an RFQ (request for qualifications), which we received three responses … from some engineering firms,” Thibodeaux said.
Currently, levee district officials are looking at the proposals submitted from the engineering firms but are not ready to select one.
Still, Thibodeaux, who worked for Shaw Coastal before joining the levee district, said they were satisfied with the proposals they received.
In the early stage, Thibodeaux said the district will be looking at securing permitting for the project.
The district also is working on permanent flood protection for the Franklin Canal as well as assisting in any way they can with the Yellow Bayou and Hanson Canal permanent structures.
As for the Franklin Canal, Thibodeaux said last week the landowner has been identified, and right now work is continuing to get the many signatures from surrounding landowners to sign off to begin construction.
However, if the landowners’ signatures cannot be obtained in a reasonable time, the levee district can expropriate the land and when they get the signatures from the landowners, then the levee district can buy the property from the landowners at fair market value.
“It’s not like we’re taking property without paying them,” Thibodeaux said. “We’re just, for the benefit of the public, allowed to move forward on that project.”
Thibodeaux said the district should be receiving a cooperative endeavor agreement from the state shortly on the project.
“The critical path is obviously the landowner,” Thibodeaux said.
Plans are for the Franklin Canal to provide storm surge protection to an elevation of 9.5 feet. It will include a pump station as well as a floodgate.
The Hanson and Yellow Bayou canals will provide flood protection to between 9.5 and 10 feet and both will have floodgates that can be opened. Hanson will have a raised gate because it also is used for navigation.
Also during the past year, the levee district has gone through two directors, with Thibodeaux being the second.
Thibodeaux was hired at the end of September and took over in mid-October, roughly a month after the former director, Allen Kelly, resigned after approximately six months on the job, citing personal reasons.
Before joining the levee district, Thibodeaux had worked with the board on both the Franklin Canal as well as plans for a permanent flood protection structure in Bayou Chene.
“I love this job. It’s been great. (It’s been) everything I’ve expected and more. I have a great group of commissioners that’s helped me. As you know or may have heard, this does not come with an operations manual to how to do this job, so there’s a lot of questions, a lot of asking, a lot of persons to work with to accomplish this job and setting priorities and making sure tasks are accomplished,” Thibodeaux told The Daily Review last week.
In other news during this past year, the levee district also has been working on completing its master plan (which is updated every five years), which will be incorporated with the state’s master plan.
Incorporating it into the state’s plan is important, Thibodeaux said, because projects in there are evaluated and can more easily get monies than those not included in the plan.
The local plan will include the Bayou Chene flood control project as well as the upgrading and renovation of levees.
Also during this year, Hidalgo was recommended for a vacant seat on the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s board.
The recommendation is key because representation has been absent in south central Louisiana, and in addition to serving as a voice for citizens in this area, the area could receive additional funding.