It took seven years, but the West Bank finally has an up-to-date flood protection system capable of meeting the challenges Mother Nature could throw its way.
The budget of the agency that maintains and operates that system, on the other hand, has more in common with the antiquated, inadequate system it replaced.
That’s the message the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West is preaching to civic and business groups in Algiers and the communities of West Jefferson in advance of two millage proposals that will go before voters Nov. 21.
Voters in Algiers will be asked to renew the Algiers Levee District’s 6.35-mill special maintenance millage that expires at the end of the year. The renewal would keep total flood protection-related taxes in Algiers unchanged at 12.53 mills, which generates $2.4 million a year.
In West Jefferson, voters will be asked to approve an additional 5.5 mills on top of the 5.03 mills that now bring in $5.1 million a year for the West Jefferson Levee District. Both the Algiers and West Jefferson levee districts are under the control of the SLFPA-W, which draws its funding from them.
The new 5.5-mill tax would cost the owner of a $175,000 home $55 more per year, SLFPA-W Board President Susan Maclay said.
Created by the Legislature in 2006, the Flood Protection Authority is the steward of the flood control projects the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built between 2007 and 2014, including the floodgates and pumping stations at Bayou Segnette and the Harvey Canal, plus the mammoth $1.1 billion West Closure Complex in Belle Chasse.
The U.S. Corps of Engineers also completed $331 million in flood walls and other infrastructure on Peters Road to protect Harvey, Gretna and Algiers.
When John Monzon took over as regional director at the SLFPA-W in May 2014 and began looking over its finances, he soon realized two things: The authority couldn’t afford to lose the revenue from the expiring millage in Algiers, and in West Jefferson, “$5.1 million is just not going to cut it.”
“We’re still functioning on ’80s dollars,” Monzon said, referring to the existing millage, put in place in 1980.
The $4 billion flood protection system needs regular inspection, repairs and maintenance. Pumps and floodgates need to be regularly exercised, and the major structures need to be “dewatered” to allow access to the hydraulic and mechanical equipment that is underwater.
The levees, now 14 feet high and four times wider than they were a decade ago, not only need to be mowed regularly but also will have to be lifted three times between now and 2045 to combat subsidence.
The first lift is going on now to coincide with the Corps’ effort to put a protective, stabilizing fabric mat just under the surface of the earthen levees.
Without the passage of the millage proposals, the authority will be operating in the red within two years, Monzon’s projections show.
Monzon said that in fiscal 2014, the SLFPA-W spent about $8.1 million on maintenance of the flood protection system.
Leaving a presentation to the Timberlane Homeowners Association on Wednesday night, Monzon said he thinks audiences have been receptive to the idea that a far superior flood protection system will cost more to maintain.
Hurricane Katrina, which could have hit the West Bank harder with just a slight change in trajectory, highlighted the deficiencies of the previous system, he said.
There were gaps in Belle Chasse, at U.S. 90 west of Avondale, at the Company Canal in Westwego and along the Harvey Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway. The levees were deficient on the Algiers Canal, and most levees along the edge of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park’s Barataria Preserve averaged only 8 feet in height.
“We were living with a hurricane protection system that was designed after Hurricane Betsy, in 1965,” Monzon said.
He said communities south of the system are having trouble with high flood insurance rates and would love to be inside a system that protects the West Bank.
“We have a $4 billion flood protection system that the (federal government) paid for, and what we’re asking for is not too much, in the grand scheme of things, in order to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program,” he said.
While not taking anything for granted, Monzon said, the authority is hoping voters keep a simple mantra in mind: “Without flood protection, nothing else matters.”