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Trouble outside the floodgates of New Orleans

More than 200,000 people live just beyond the city's post-Katrina levee system. Hurricane Isaac emphasized just how vulnerable they are.

September 24, 2012|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • A floodgate is inspected in New Orleans. Hurricane Isaac emphasized the vulnerability of about 200,000 people in rural areas not part of the city's system.
A floodgate is inspected in New Orleans. Hurricane Isaac emphasized the… (Molly Hennessy-Fiske /…)

NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Isaac may have proved a successful test for the 840,000 people inside the New Orleans hurricane protection system — 133 miles of levees, floodgates and walls that surround the city and portions of four parishes like a fortress. But the storm highlighted the vulnerability of more than 200,000 people just beyond the system.

As of last week, an estimated 13,000 homes were reported flooded in Louisiana, most just outside the $14.5-billion federal levee system rebuilt around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Experts estimate that total insured on-shore damages from the Category 1 storm could reach $1.5 billion. That's somewhat less than the roughly $2 billion in damage caused by Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

Local and state lawmakers are lobbying the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to extend hurricane protection beyond the existing New Orleans system. They hope that the contrast between Isaac's effects on the haves and the have-nots — that is, the urban areas inside the levee system and the rural areas outside it — will lead to more equal treatment.

Residents and officials of areas with the most Isaac-related flooding — Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. John the Baptist and St. Tammany parishes — are pushing for taller levees, new barrier walls, floodgates and pumping stations. In Jefferson, the most significant project would be a planned 16-foot-high, 28-mile-long ring levee that would protect 3,000 homes, including many belonging to people who have lived there for generations.

But Steven Stockton, the Army Corps' deputy director of civil works, says the corps faces a $60-billion backlog in projects already authorized by Congress — and only $2 billion a year for projects nationwide. The projects most likely to win funding must promise benefits that outweigh construction and maintenance costs at least 2 to 1.

"In a rural, less populated area, you just don't generate the benefits," Stockton said.

Emphasizing that the corps has to keep in mind the best interests of all taxpayers, he asked: "Should a taxpayer in Iowa be subsidizing someone's risky behavior in southern Louisiana if they want to live in a flood plain?"

Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner says his Jefferson Parish town, among the communities flooded during Isaac, is a cultural treasure that merits hurricane protection. Built by French and Spanish settlers, it's named after a French pirate who helped fight off a British attack on New Orleans.

The ring levee that he and other officials are pushing is a scaled-back version of a nearly $1-billion project that Congress authorized but that the corps canceled. The larger project wasn't worth the expense, corps officials concluded, noting that one study had estimated the average annual storm damage in the area at $15 million to $22 million — compared with the levee's annual construction and maintenance costs of $67 million to $75 million.

"Right now, if we were treated as second-class citizens, it would be an improvement," Kerner said.

He and others resent being excluded from the federal levee system. Stoking their anger is one of the grandest post-Katrina improvements in the system: the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway West Closure Complex, a $1-billion series of flood walls, gates and pumps on the Intracoastal Waterway just north of Jean Lafitte.

Billed as the largest pumping station in the world, the complex was designed by the Corps of Engineers to protect the west bank of New Orleans. When it was used for the first time during Isaac, the complex did just that — even as Jean Lafitte flooded.

"We knew it was going to happen, and it's going to happen over and over again," Kerner said. "We are happy for them, but not at our expense."

Some complain the levee system worsened flooding outside the protection zone, which corps officials dispute. Even if the system did direct water toward other communities, they say, the amount was minuscule compared with storm surge and rain.

Outside Lafitte Town Hall this month, fisherwoman Tina Wertz, 47, of nearby Barataria and her 13-year-old daughter, Hailey, ate boxed lunches and tried not to think about their home, inundated with 7 feet of water.

"They pick and choose," she said of corps officials' decision to limit hurricane protection. "We pay our taxes just like they pay their taxes. They put up a wall to protect them and not us. They're waiting for us to wash away."

The ring levee has the support of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the state's U.S. senators. Said Jefferson Parish President John Young: "Look at all the money FEMA had to put out with Isaac, Rita, Ike. This is not just important to these communities — it's important to the nation."

He and other local officials have persuaded state lawmakers to include the ring levee in the first phase of Louisiana's $50-billion, 50-year coastal restoration plan that would be paid for with the BP-funded Restore Act and the state's share of gulf oil revenue.

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