(WVUE) - In Louisiana's bayou communities, life has has always entailed an occasional battle with the sea.
"We've got the best levee builders down here you can find in the country," said Joe Baker as he fished in Bayou Dulac in Terrebonne Parish. "We're used to building levees."
The state's retreating coast has isolated these towns, once defended by marsh and forests of cypress.
"Just a mile down here where I was raised, it used to be full of cypress," said Terrebonne Parish resident Terry Joseph Leblanc.
"Ain't got a one standing no more, everything's dead."
A marsh buggy excavator builds a terrace in Lafourche Parish
For nearly 30 years, the parish has tied its long term future to a nearly 100-mile long system of levees, gates and flood walls. The Morganza to the Gulf Levee-- sometimes authorized by congress, sometimes not-- has ballooned in estimated costs to roughly $11 billion.
"I'll never live long enough to see it," said Terrebonne Parish Levee District Director Reggie Dupre. "I mean, we've not received one dime of appropriations on this federal project."
In bayou country, they got tired of waiting.
Terrebonne Parish is building part of the system largely on its own, including the $35 million Falgout Canal Floodgate now under construction.
"It's going to stop storm surges coming from the southwest," Dupre said."
Over the last 12 years, the parish has installed six new floodgates and 35 miles of levee along the footprint of Morganza to the Gulf.
Some of the funding flowed from Hurricane Gustav recovery dollars in the form of federal block grants, but the vast majority of the money comes from local or state sources.
Terrebonne has contributed about half of the $400 million in overall funding for the levee system.
"Between the parish line and Pointe Aux Chene, we have literally connected the five bayou communities of Terrebonne," Dupre said.
"You can't put a price on that, having all your stuff destroyed by the water," said resident Jesse James Picou. "But the levee is doing a job."
Twice, Terrebonne Parish voters agreed to raise sales taxes to lift the levees.
Barely six foot high drainage levees have been converted to 12-foot levees in many places.
"I personally think we've reduced our flood risk by 90 percent of what flooded in 2008 and 2005," Dupre said.
Horses grazing in a field near a levee in southern Lafourche Parish
Terrebonne's next door neighbor, Lafourche Parish, has taken a similar approach.
In the levee district covering the southern part of Lafourche, voters approved a one-cent sales tax with 82 percent support.
"We build the best levee we can afford," said Windell Curole, Director of the South Lafourche Levee District, which is not part of the proposed Morganza system.
Near Galliano, a large drag line is at work carving material for an 18 foot levee.
The district borrows the material adjacent to the levee to eliminate transportation costs.
While the drag line deposits the mud along the shoreline, Curole explained a smaller, cheaper piece of equipment does the actual molding of the levee.
"We play a game when you win, nobody knows the score," Curole said. "When you lose, everybody knows the score and they have this morbid interest in it. You get a lot of attention when you fail doing flood protection work."
Boundaries of the South Lafourche Levee District
He concedes there are compromises along the way.
In metro New Orleans, the $14 billion hurricane risk reduction system was built to new, federal standards including the highest quality clay available. The Terrebonne and South Lafourche levees do not meet the tougher building standards.
"We don't need a perfect levee," Curole said. "These levees are not as good as the levees in New Orleans. They don't have to be. All they have to be is good enough to stop the water and they have proven time and time again that they can stop the water."
Under federal law, erecting a levee in the marsh requires mitigation to offset damage to the environment.
Both levee districts take a do-it-yourself approach, employing marsh buggies or small dredges to sculpt man-made wetlands and terraces.
"Anything we put on the outside of the levee system that knocks down everyday wave action is beneficial."
An excavator builds terraces adjacent to a levee near Galliano, La. in Lafourche Parish
A series of hurricanes and tropical storms raised questions about the long term viability of communities that repeatedly flooded.
In Terrebonne Parish, Reggie Dupre believes the levees give new life to small communities south of Houma.
"I think we're buying two or three more generations of livelihood for these bayou communities than they otherwise would have had."