Corps asked to scrap floodgate plans in Belle Chasse, Louisiana

Published 15 September 2009

There is a debate in Louisiana about the best way to protect homes in the Jesuit Bend area: the Army Corps of Engineers wants to build a floodgate — but this would leave some 1,400 homes unprotected; residents prefer an 8-mile levee

Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser is calling on the Army Corps of Engineers to scrap plans to build a floodgate south of Belle Chasse, proposing an alternative that he said would improve flood protection for 1,400 homes in the Jesuit Bend area at no additional cost.

Jesuit Bend residents have balked at being left outside the planned floodgate across Louisiana 23 in Oakville, saying it will diminish their property values and create a storm-surge backflow that increases their flood risk. The gate is part of a project to close the eastern end of the West Bank hurricane-protection system by connecting it to the Mississippi River levee four miles south of Belle Chasse.

Nungesser said that instead of building the gate, the corps should raise 8 miles of nonfederal levee from Oakville to La Reussite, providing 100-year flood protection to more than 3,000 additional residents. He said the back levee could be connected to the river levee without a floodgate by raising the highway at La Reussite.

The Times-Picayune’s Paul Rioux writes that the corps is planning to raise the back levee as part of a separate $670 million project to upgrade 34 miles of levee from Oakville to St. Jude, but the budget is insufficient to raise the levee enough to guard against a 100-year flood.

Nungesser, however, said the additional cost of raising the 8-mile section from Oakville to La Reussite to the 100-year height would be offset by the savings from not building the floodgate. “This would be totally cost neutral, ” he said. “The smart thing to do — and the moral thing to do — is to protect more people and more property for the same money.”

Corps spokeswoman Nancy Allen said corps officials were unavailable to comment on Nungesser’s proposal. “We have a good working relationship with President Nungesser, and we certainly welcome input from all of our partners, ” she said. She said corps officials will discuss the planned floodgate at a public meeting 19 September at 9 a.m. at Belle Chasse High School.

The corps has delayed final approval of the project to analyze concerns residents raised at a pair of packed public hearings in April and May.

Allen said no date has been set for completing the analysis, which will be included in an addendum to a 135-page report released in April on the project’s impact on residents, property and the environment.

Pete Stavros, a Louisiana Air National Guard commander based in Belle Chasse, said the Oakville floodgate combined with a massive 20,000-cubic-feet-per-second pumping station, to be built south of the confluence of the Harvey and Algiers canals, will significantly increase the flood risk for his home in the Jesuit Bend Estates subdivision. “The corps is planning to build the largest pumping station in the world behind us while giving us minimal flood protection, ” said Stavros, who has taken two trips to Washington, D.C., to make his case to members of the area’s congressional delegation.

Corps officials have said the floodgate would have a “negligible” impact on flooding, adding 2 or 3 inches to water levels south of the gate.

Nungesser said the parish has hired Joe Suhayda, a coastal engineering consultant and interim director of the LSU Hurricane Center, to conduct its own storm-surge analysis. He said the planned floodgate is threatening to divide the parish, both literally and figuratively.

In an online forum to discuss the parish’s levee system, some Belle Chasse residents called for building the Oakville floodgate first and then focus on improving flood protection for the Jesuit Bend area. They said they do not want to delay 100-year protection for Belle Chasse beyond the corps’ June 2011 deadline and fear the levee will provide inferior protection.

Nungesser, though, said the levee would be less vulnerable to damage by loose barges and other vessels than the planned floodgate and floodwalls at Oakville.

I would never jeopardize one area of Plaquemines Parish for another, ” he said. “My job is to protect the entire parish the best I can.”