Thousands living outside floodwalls fight for their own hurricane defenses

Thousands living outside floodwalls fight for their own hurricane defenses

LAFITTE, LA (WVUE) - The Woodland Plantation on the west bank of Plaquemines Parish has flooded three times in the past decade.

"We can think, just like we do everywhere else, that we can control Mother Nature and we can live where we want," said owner Foster Creppel. "But that's not true."

Creppel points out dozens of plantations once lined the Mississippi River before man started re-engineering nature, robbing the wetlands of the river's life-giving sediment.

"They were built way before the levee was built," Creppel said.

Throughout Southeastern Louisiana, a few hundred thousand people live outside the new flood walls built to guard New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In one form or another, residents there demand their own protection.

Lafitte sits a few miles downstream from the world's largest drainage pumping station on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. Brent Bourgeois was among those sandbagging when Hurricane Isaac rolled through in 2012.

"There was a period about dark when the water just went, poof, jumped over a whole row of sandbags," Bourgeois said.

Like many of his neighbors, he blames the giant pumps that emptied West Jefferson, Algiers and the Belle Chasse area.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers insists that computer analysis shows New Orleans flood defenses in no way inundated those outside the lines, or made only a marginal difference.

Bourgeois is among those in Jean Lafitte, Crown Point and Barataria who question the findings.

"Those people built their houses there before this thing," Bourgeois said. "That thing was built after them."

The state and federal governments are building new land, a pipeline delivering sediment by long distance from the Mississippi River into Jefferson Parish. The project is recreating a ridge south of Lafitte.

"We should be in a little better shape than before Katrina," Lafitte resident Ed Perrin said.

Local government leaders believe a ring levee in the works would also provide relief.

Terrebonne Parish, mostly on its own, built parts of what could become a 100-mile-long system of levees, gates and other structures known as Morganza to the Gulf. The project, now decades in the making, is authorized by Congress but not funded.

On the North Shore, activists pushed the state to include in the coastal master plan some kind of barrier or levee running from the Rigolets to Chef Pass. However, it is not an official U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project and faces opposition from Mississippi officials, who fear a barrier would pile more water onto their coast.

Laplace, which got hammered in Hurricane Isaac, also hopes to pry money out of Congress for a new levee.

"Crises create opportunities," said Tulane University political analyst Mike Sherman, who believes Louisiana faces more hurdles in the new budget reality of Washington.

Nationwide, the Corps lists a backlog of billions of dollars in water projects.

"We don't have a crisis right now in the eyes of the nation," Sherman said. "We're in the same line as everybody else."

Plaquemines Parish recently put up $3 million to begin the process of studying a back levee south of Belle Chasse to prevent surge from some future Isaac.

On the east bank, the Braithwaite community will finally get a 12-foot levee.

However, at Woodland Plantation across the river, Foster Creppel avoids the chorus clambering for levees.

"They want levees, but they can't protect themselves from big storm surges with a levee," Creppel said. "They can't build a levee high enough."

He argues coastal communities should emphasize building back natural defenses and living with the water.

In Madisonville, weekends rock once again at the rebuilt-- taller-- T-Rivers Bar, which was wiped out in the hurricane 3 years ago.

"I guess we're one of the tallest buildings from here to Slidell in this flood zone," said owner Mike Benjamin, who built to 18 feet of elevation.

Benjamin is still making adjustments to comply with government rules, including plans to physically split the main bar on the lower floor in two, making it portable.

"Base flood elevation is the number one haunting phrase of my life," Benjamin jokes.

He has learned to live with water, not that FEMA, his insurance company or lenders gave him any choice.

Copyright 2015 WVUE. All rights reserved.