MOTHER NATURE’S SURGE

The Pontchartrain Levee District monitors and helps modify barriers designed to protect South Louisiana’s assets

The boundaries of the Pontchartrain Levee District are easy to define, both by map and by landmark. Stretching through 122 miles of the East Bank River and six parishes (East Baton Rouge, Iberville, Ascension, St. Charles, St. James and St. John the Baptist for those keeping score), the levee begins at the Old Baton Rouge Bridge and ends at the Kenner city limits.

The exact role of Pontchartrain Levee District members, however, is not as obvious to the area’s residing citizens.  Levee Board President Steve Wilson says this is why he’s always eager to share the critical importance of the organization’s work.

“The public, I [suspect], thinks we [just] go out there and cut the grass,” Wilson says. “[While] general maintenance along the levee is something we handle, but it’s not all we handle [we do so much more] . Anytime the Corps of Engineers [leads] a project within this six-parish area, we’re the local sponsors. We’re really the people who monitor the levees – identifying places where they might be compromised or in need of attention – to the Corps.”

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Since its founding in 1895, the primary mission of the Levee Board is to provide flood protection for people and property within its jurisdiction. As this remains true these many years later, heightened population in the once-rural and uninhabited areas, along with rapid coastal erosion, has caused the Levee Board to investigate aggressively and initiate advanced methods of flood control.

Exemplifying the Levee Board’s proactive approach to trumpet projects vital to the personal and economic prosperity of South Louisiana, is the West Shore project which calls for the construction of a levee that will protect the east bank of St. John Parish along with parts of St. James and St. Charles. The estimated $700-$800 million plan comprises 18 miles of earthen levees and floodwalls, four floodgates, a drainage canal tracing the length of the levee, a flood-side ditch, four pumping stations and two drainage structures. The West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Levee Project is a massive endeavor with more than four decades of research behind it, and it will finally go to the U.S. Congressional Committee for authorization this summer.

Thanks to its location, the proposed West Shore levee would provide flood protection to the Port of South Louisiana and the many businesses within the Port District that collectively make up the heartbeat of the River Parishes economy.

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“West Shore mirrors the Port’s jurisdiction,” Wilson says. “And when we’re out talking to the state about the taxes or a millage to pay for 35 percent of the project that will not be [is not] covered federally, we definitely mention the Port of South Louisiana every time we talk. You’re talking about the largest tonnage port [in the Western Hemisphere]. You’re talking about the thousands of people who make a living, a good living in the companies the Port serves. So I tell people, ‘The Port is an asset that just can’t flood.’”

During these discussions, the opposition claims the Port nestles against the Mississippi River exposing it to a limited danger of flooding from Lake Pontchartrain. To those people, Wilson presents aerial photos of the Port District after major storms (Katrina, Rita Isaac).

“The water might not reach the river levee, in which case we’d just need an ark,” Wilson says. “But what the aerials do show is that the companies within the Port District are affected and shut down because the infrastructure is affected. It shuts down the railroad. It shuts down the interstate. So the Port becomes useless. You can pull all the materials you want from a ship, but from there, it can’t go anywhere.”

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Wilson says he believes this to be critical, “You have to keep hammering it home, again. Forty years ago, the Corps of Engineers said, ‘we need to protect this area.’ And now, we’re as close as we’ve ever been to digging dirt.”

By William Kalec

 

 

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