Outside the Walls: People living outside new levees fight for their own protection

A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hovers over a motel in LaPlace in this Aug. 30, 2012 file photo (John Snell)
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hovers over a motel in LaPlace in this Aug. 30, 2012 file photo (John Snell)

LaPlace, La. - On the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2012, LaPlace woke up to a new reality. 72 hours of tropical storm force winds drove Lake Pontchartrain into neighborhoods that had never before flooded.

"It had just gotten to where I thought, I've had enough of this and it's starting to get better," said Ruth Chauff, a LaPlace resident recently as she prepared to move back into repaired home.

Chauff considers herself one of the lucky ones.

"When it happened to other people, I tried to help them," Chauff said. "And I thought I understood. You don't understand until it happens to you."

While the government is spending $14.6 billion on a risk-reduction system for most of metropolitan New Orleans, hundreds of thousands of people outside the new levees, gates and floodwalls remain essentially defenseless.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying three options for a levee to provide protection against the 100-year storm, or a tropical system with a one percent likelihood of occurring in any given year.

The options include a levee hugging the current limits of today's development, and one that follows an old pipeline corridor farther from subdivisions.

The third option, preferred by St. John Parish leaders, would run along I-10 from Lake Pontchartrain all the way to Sorrento.

"Obviously, we need our area protected," said St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom. "But shoving that over to our next parish would do a disservice to our neighbors."

Within the next few weeks, the Corps will choose a tentative alignment based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Colonel Ed Fleming, commander of the Corps' New Orleans District, notes the longer levee alignment would require more material, pump stations and gates, which tend to drive up the cost.

"The longer the levee reach, the higher the cost," Fleming said. "And it's sometimes not necessarily the increased benefits go along with that."

However, Fleming points out all three of the options have advantages and disadvantages.

Even after the tentative selection is made, Fleming said the Corps will need a congressional appropriation to conduct a feasibility study. Then, comes the more serious fight to wrestle the millions of dollars from Washington for construction.

Nevertheless, Robottom said she "feels more confident now than I have in the years that I've known about this as a project."

Ruth Chauff would like to put up a defense against the water 40 miles to the east. "You can't help but believe the best idea is to get over there by the Rigolets somewhere and stop it from ever getting in our area."

In fact, the notion of closing off Lake Pontchartrain during a surge goes back to the 1960's.

A study last November for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East suggested a 17-mile, $750 million levee to be later topped by a floodwall.

"We would be foolish not to consider everything that's available to us," said Tim Doody, the flood authority president.

Regional political leaders such as St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister see the barrier or levee as the most cost-effective option for protection the North Shore.

"My constituents need help," Brister said.

However, the barrier idea has raised alarm bells on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"We're very concerned about it because it's certainly going to change the way Waveland floods and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the entire region," said Waveland Mayor David Garcia.

Garcia argues Louisiana and Mississippi leaders should be talking about a solution that works for everyone. "What I'm saying is remember us too," Garcia said.

Doody points out the levee, which would run along the New Orleans East land bridge from the Rigolets to Chef Pass, isn't even an official Corps project at the moment. "It's a little early to start running around, saying the sky is falling," Doody said.

However, Doody understands the impact on other areas must be considered.  "People get bits and pieces of information and they react to the bits and pieces of information," Doody said. "Everybody remembers what happened in Hurricane Katrina and no one wants that to happen again, least of all us."

The levee could be designed for overtopping, allowing a smaller amount of water into the lake. However, the Flood Authority consultants, Oakland, Calif.-based Ben C. Gerwick Inc., found a later phase including gates over the Rigolets and Chef Pass could drive too much water toward Mississippi.

Even after an expenditure running into the billions of dollars, Colonel Fleming believes the barrier would not be a cure all.  "Lake Pontchartrain is a pretty big lake," Fleming said. "There is wind-driven surge regardless of where the water comes from and whether you stop the water at Chef Pass and Rigolets."

In other words, Pontchartrain is big enough that even if the Corps stopped the surge with a new wall, Fleming said the lake would produce its own, smaller surge.

"If you're able to keep four feet of water out of the lake, and it is a big lake, you have four feet of water less to deal with," Doody countered.

Corps computer studies show the new floodwalls around New Orleans had no effect on other areas, including the North Shore and LaPlace.

Not everyone buys the argument, but it provides a degree of comfort for Ruth Chauff in LaPlace.

"If it was simply that we got an unbelievably unique storm... then we can pray we won't have another one for awhile," Chauff said. "That's what I want to believe."