LULING, LA (WVUE) - In a cypress swamp situated on the back side of the Willowridge Subdivision, heavy equipment plowed away Wednesday.
For people on the west bank of St. Charles Parish, the work is a long-awaited sight.
"Obviously, you feel very threatened now because of the wetlands being decreased, and it suggests that we do need an added measure of protection," said resident George Williamson.
Williamson has called Luling home for nearly 40 years. He joined others in witnessing a major milestone Wednesday afternoon.
St. Charles Parish leaders broke ground for the first phase of the Willowridge levee, which is part of the parish's hurricane protection levee project.
Parish President V.J. St. Pierre said the first phase will cover 3.5 miles at a cost of nearly $6 million.
"It'll probably impact around 12,000 residents, primarily in the Willowridge, Willowdale area," he said.
The hurricane protection levee project is multi-phased, covering 33 miles from the Davis Diversion West Guide Levee in Luling to a ridge at Highway 308 in Lafourche Parish. It will provide protection to more than 25,000 residents, as well as businesses and industrial sites. The overall project has a price tag of $500 million.
The Jindal administration said another $8 million for flood protection in the area is in this year's state budget.
"I know that all of us here are acutely aware of the Achilles' heel of St. Charles Parish, and that's the west bank," said Garrett Graves, Governor Jindal's Executive Assistant for Coastal Activities. "The potential is for a hurricane coming up Barataria Bay and flooding this community,"
And when it comes to tidal surges and related vulnerabilities, the parish president said the spot where the ground was broken for the levee is only about 35 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
"Every time they have a hurricane in the Gulf, everybody starts panicking," said St. Pierre.
The prospect of higher flood insurance rates if the federal Biggert-Waters Act is not delayed further keeps homeowners on edge.
"This levee ought to be taken into consideration when FEMA does their new maps, so yes, definitely I get a little nervous," said Williamson.
However, St. Pierre said right now they have a buffer.
"Because we didn't adopt our FEMA maps yet, we have two years to revamp our maps, and then FEMA has one year to appeal our maps, so we're looking at like a three-year window," said St. Pierre.
Still they're keeping the pressure on Congress to delay higher rates associated with Biggert-Waters for four years, and ultimately repeal the law. An amendment to the federal spending bill that U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy pushed to be approved delays the higher rates for nearly a year.
That bill was signed into law last week by President Obama. The Senate bill co-sponsored by Sen. Mary Landrieu would delay the rates for four years and require FEMA to conduct affordability studies.