$760M approved to construct levee system in St. John Parish
LAPLACE — The total amount came out of left field, according to Natalie Robottom.
The St. John the Baptist Parish president said her recent conversations with U.S. Rep. Garret Graves (R-Baton Rouge) suggested federal funding for levee construction was approaching, but news Thursday that $760 million upfront was approved for the West Shore Hurricane Protection Project was “amazing.”
“The fact that (Graves) was able to get the entire amount upfront was huge,” Robottom said. “It’s more than we expected. We were always thinking they would come up with a 65 percent share.”
The funds will be used to construct a flood protection system, designed and vetted by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, that includes earthen levees, flood walls and pump stations, extending 18 miles from the Bonnet Carre Spillway to the Hope Canal in Garyville.
Ring levees will also be created around Gramercy and Lutcher.
The new system starts out where the New Orleans system ends at the Bonnet Carré Spillway and moves west to cover all of St. John Parish and provide relief to a portion of St. James Parish, according to Ricky Boyett, chief of public affairs for the Corps.
“You build a combination of features to which, when the storm comes, the area behind that, what we call the protected side, has a 100-year elevation or a 100-year storm surge risk reduction level,” Boyett told L’OBSERVATEUR when discussing the project last year. “A 100-year storm surge event or hurricane means it has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. That is the same level of risk reduction that the post Katrina hurricane system was constructed to.”
The Pontchartrain Levee District is the project’s local sponsor and will work in conjunction with parish governments, state agencies and federal interests in the coming years to usher the process along.
District Executive Director Monica Gorman said her office would begin work in the coming weeks concerning logistics for the massive project.
Robottom said the project’s design needs to be finalized before the process of acquiring property for constriction can begin.
“There are things that need to be done, but all of that moves a lot quicker when you have funds upfront,” Robottom said. “I really hope people realize how important that is. It just doesn’t really happen that often.”
As Chair of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, Graves has jurisdiction over the Corps of Engineers and has been working with the White House, Army and Corps leadership on appropriations, expediting projects and realigning priorities.
“This is not a drill,” Graves said. “This is not merely a hope and a prayer. The logjam has been completely broken, and we are getting the best flood protection we’ve ever had.”
The project is designed to prevent an episode like the Hurricane Isaac flooding.
That 2012 storm showed how the East Bank of St. John the Baptist Parish is vulnerable to storm surge generated from Lake Pontchartrain and, to a lesser extent, Lake Maurepas.
The winds for a hurricane turn counter clockwise and when they come to rest over Lake Pontchartrain, a very wide but very shallow body of water, a surge is created pushing directly into the areas in and around St. John the Baptist Parish.
Stressing all storms are different, Boyett noted last year that Hurricane Isaac was not up to the level of a 100-year storm. Had the proposed levee been in place, Boyett said St. John Parish would not have seen the Isaac flooding.
Louisiana officials must repay 35 percent of the construction’s cost over 30 years following the White House Office of Management and Budget’s approval this week.
In April 2017, St. John the Baptist Parish residents voted almost two-to-one in favor of a dedicated 7-mill property tax initiative to fund storm and flood protection, funds Robottom said the parish has in place for local maintenance and cost-share requirements.
The measure passed 3,019 to 1,788 as the only parishwide election that day.