Corps of Engineers: $760 million levee project to protect St. John should be finished by 2023
Officials said Monday that they are aiming to complete construction of a new federal levee system protecting LaPlace and surrounding areas by 2023, the first concrete timeline for a project originally conceived nearly 50 years ago.
St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom briefed the media on the $760 million project Monday, joined by U.S. Rep. Garret Graves and Col. Michael Clancy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among others.
Robottom said the next step is to acquire the property where construction will take place, a process that's expected to take up to two years. But she said officials hope to get that done earlier, which would push up the final completion date.
Much of the land for the project, which will include a levee system on the east bank of the Mississippi River from the Bonnet Carre Spillway in St. Charles Parish to the Hope Canal in St. John, is owned by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, she said.
Clancy said the Corps will come up with a feasibility study, and construction then would proceed, taking about three years and putting the estimated completion date sometime in late 2023.
The Corps will put out 11 different contracts for the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Risk Reduction Project work, which will include four pump stations and two drainage gates in addition to 18 miles of levee.
“It’s simply too big a project to have as one single contract,” Clancy said, adding that it will create hundreds of jobs as it moves forward over the next few years.
The long-discussed project took on new urgency after Hurricane Isaac pushed water from Lake Pontchartrain into LaPlace in 2012, flooding more than 3,500 homes.
The new flood protection system is designed to protect the area from a so-called “100-year storm,” or a storm that has a 1 percent chance of happening any year.
The federal government will ultimately pick up 65 percent of the $760 million cost. It will advance the rest to the state, which will have 30 years to pay the feds back for its share, which will largely come from St. John Parish revenue, Robottom said.
She added that getting the full $760 million upfront is critical, since quickly securing any significant funding at the local level would have been very difficult.
That’s also key in getting flood insurance rates down, Robottom said, and her administration is already planning to reach out to FEMA to get the area remapped and rates lowered once the levee system is in place. Some homeowners saw their rates double or even triple after Hurricane Isaac.
The project has been a long time coming for St. John, with Congress authorizing the first feasibility study in 1971. That didn’t happen for another 42 years — in 2013, one year after Isaac.
President Barack Obama “authorized” the project as part of a comprehensive water resources bill in 2016, but it didn't get funding from Congress until this year.
The money was finally approved in July as part of the $2.6 billion Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which includes a total of $1.2 billion for Louisiana flood mitigation projects.
Another major project in the act is the Comite River Diversion Canal — a $343 million effort to improve drainage between Baker and Zachary. That project, too, had been considered for decades but was not funded until after the surrounding area was inundated in 2016.
Robottom credited the funding to Graves’ efforts, saying that for the West Shore project to go from initial authorization to full funding in just three years is “unheard of.”
“That is a comforting feeling to know your representatives and know that you can count on them,” Robottom said before handing Graves a ceremonial key to St. John Parish, telling him, “You are welcome in St. John the Baptist Parish any time."
When completed, the project will protect over 60,000 people in the River Parishes, according to the St. John Parish government, as well as commercial and industrial structures and the Interstate 10 hurricane evacuation corridor.