Mississippi pushes back against idea of Lake Pontchartrain Surge Barrier

Cleanup crews in Waveland, Ms. pile marsh grass and other debris from Isaac (John Snell)
Cleanup crews in Waveland, Ms. pile marsh grass and other debris from Isaac (John Snell)

Waveland, Miss. -- In the days following Hurricane Isaac, Louisiana political leaders have renewed interest an old idea for keeping storm surge out of Lake Pontchartrain.

However, along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, people are left wondering where all that water would go.

"I never got water behind my house before, no small storms and this time [in Isaac], it's coming right up to the side of my house," said John Passantino, a Waveland resident.

Experts point out Isaac produced a giant surge for a Category 1 hurricane, up to 14 feet.  Coupled with the hurricane's path, that piled water into places with little or no history of flooding.

Louisiana's coastal master plan already includes a project aimed at shutting the door to Lake Pontchartrain, not only preventing flooding on the North Shore and in LaPlace, but adding another layer of protection to New Orleans and Jefferson Parish.

The proposed Lake Pontchartrain Surge Barrier -- some kind of flood wall or levee stretching several miles along Highway 90 in Eastern New Orleans -- would include flood gates at the Rigolets and Chef Pass.

In Waveland, the reaction is something like, "You want to build what?"  Craig Breland and other Waveland residents fear the barrier would simply move water to their part of the coast.

"It's gotta go somewhere and it's pushing back through here," Breland said.

Louisiana's master plan estimates in year 50 of the project, the surge barrier could be paying for itself several times over, preventing average annual losses from storm surge of between $2 billion to $10 billion.  However, the authors concede they did not calculate any resulting damage to Mississippi.

"I really believe that we've been lied to about the levees in Louisiana," said David Yarborough, a member of the Hancock County Board of Supervisors.

When asked about the impact of existing levees, Yarborough said, "the answer they got back from Congress was that New Orleans was more important than Mississippi."

Yarborough echoes the sentiment of many of his constituents: "People is people. I don't care if they're from Louisiana, Mississippi or where they're from."

Today, the surge barrier is little more than a line a map, a rough concept with no estimated budget.

The opposition could doom the project if Mississippi's Congressional delegation puts up a united front.

"We're going to have to answer the concerns of Mississippi," Senator Mary Landrieu said in a recent interview.  "I think we can. There are ways to design these systems if we put our best engineers on it."

Some engineers have already suggested the "Us versus Them" battle can be avoided by designing a structure that would cut down on the volume of water flowing into the lake without drowning Waveland, Bay St. Louis and other communities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says computer modeling shows improvements to New Orleans levees have had essentially zero effect on Mississippi.  However, political leaders such as Waveland Mayor David Garcia are prodding the Corps to conduct a new study of precisely how much water would come their way should a new barrier be constructed.

"I don't think Mississippi should put their water on Louisiana," Garcia said before adding, "I don't think Louisiana should put their water on us.