Friday, February 29, 2008

Corps' levee projects on the hot seat

Residents of Jefferson and St. Charles parishes questioned Army Corps of Engineers officials Thursday about a $1 billion plan to raise hurricane protection levees in both parishes.

At the public hearing at the East Bank Regional Library in Metairie, residents questioned the corps' plans, which involve building a new floodwall on the Jefferson-St. Charles Parish line, and raising the levees along the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline to heights ranging from 15 feet to 17.5 feet and armoring the front of the levee with a low floodwall.

The purpose of the hearing was to get public input on the environmental effects of the proposed projects, though residents in attendance were primarily concerned about the levees' effectiveness.

Ryan Crais of Kenner asked why the corps chose the floodwall along the parish line canal, also known as the West Return Canal.

"I thought the waves against that wall were going to shake my house apart," he said, referring to the storm surge during Hurricane Katrina. "Let the waves break on the other side, not right against the wall."

He wanted the corps to instead build an earthen levee along the canal, an alternative corps officials said was considered.

But Stuart Waits, the corps project manager for that job, said the soil in the marshy area is not stable enough to hold a levee. Instead, a new floodwall will be built about 35 feet west of the existing floodwall, which was constructed in a less stable I configuration. The new wall will be built in the shape of an upside down T for extra stability, he said.

On the 10-mile stretch of lakefront levee between the canal and the Orleans Parish line, corps officials say a 6-foot-high breakwater at the shoreline is needed because when the original lakefront levees were built in the 1960s, the shoreline was about 200 feet farther away. The breakwater would help keep the shoreline from encroaching on the levee.

Fran Campbell, executive director of the East Jefferson Levee District, said she had lobbied the corps to move the breakwater farther north to reclaim some of that land lost to the lake, but was turned down.

A major part of the East Jefferson project will be to build 17-foot-high floodwalls around the outflows of the parish's four major lakefront pump stations to prevent them from becoming the Achilles' heels of the protection system.

Under the design being considered, the pumps would continue to operate during a storm, pumping rainwater into the lake through openings in the walls or over the walls. But should the power fail, the discharge pipes would be mechanically sealed.

Metairie resident Don Neubeck complained that the shutoff systems would have to be operated manually and that automatic shutoffs should be used to prevent the surge from moving backward through the pumps after a power failure.

"That's the weak link in the system," he said.

Senior Project Manager Carl Anderson said that point would be considered before the design was completed.

In St. Charles Parish, the levees would be raised to between 13 feet and 15 feet. The corps has decided its best bet is to widen the base of the levee by about 300 feet to handle the extra height. The corps had considered placing an extra layer of geotextile fabric on the levee, which would have allowed it to build up the elevation on its existing base.

The public review period for the St. Charles levee, known as IER1, will run from April 1 through May 1. The west return canal floodwall comment period will run from April 8 to May 8. That project is called IER2. The comment period for the Lake Pontchartrain levee plan, known as IER3, will run from April 21 through May 21.

A final decision date for the three projects are tentatively set for May 19, 22 and 28, respectively.