Mississippi River Levees

From its historical beginnings, Louisiana has been susceptible to annual flooding from the Mississippi River. Always intent on finding the straightest, steepest course down to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi has changed its course many times. However, since the late 1800s, a levee system, particularly around New Orleans has helped contain the massive body of water. This system appeared to do its job until the fateful year of 1927, when heavy spring rains soaked the Midwest and changed the way America harnessed the Mississippi River.

The Flood of 1927

In the spring and summer of 1927, flood-level water covering 26,000 square miles of America’s heartland, rushed violently down the Mississippi River toward a final destination of New Orleans and the river’s mouth. Disaster for the city was averted only at the expense of lower-lying communities below New Orleans, as levees for these downstream communities were dynamited to save New Orleans. Thousands lost homes and ways of life. The tragedy proved that the New Orleans – area levee system had to be improved.

Realizing that the flood was a national concern, Congress passed the Federal Flood Control Act of 1928 and authorized $300 million to begin the Mississippi River and Tributaries project. This was more money than had been spent on levees throughout history.This massive flood control project, which continues today, incorporated not only levees but also dams and spillways to help control the flow of the river. The project also included a diversion of the Mississippi River into the low-lying areas of the Atchafalaya River.

Other Floods and New Concerns

In 1937, the river reached flood stage once again. But this time, thanks to the earlier creation of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, the flood crest was diverted into Lake Pontchartrain. Once again, New Orleans was saved from river flooding.

In April 1973, flooding along the Mississippi was increasing still again. On April 8, the Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened, as it had been in 1945 and 1950. This relieved New Orleans of flood worries. But, on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, extensive sand bagging was needed to keep the river from topping the levee near Westwego.

That flood demonstrated to area legislators that the West Bank of Jefferson Parish — which was under the jurisdiction of the Lafourche Basin Levee District — needed its own levee district to assure that river levees were kept up to standards. In 1980, the state legislature finally created the West Jefferson Levee District (WJLD) and charged it with protecting its citizens from flooding.

Following its creation, the WJLD began its mission by embarking on a project to raise and strengthen its levees, working with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. As a result, all of the levees along the Mississippi River were completely rebuilt to withstand the worst flooding situations. In fact, during 2008 the river was out of its banks from March until June. Except for minor areas of seepage, the West Bank levee did its job and protected the area from flooding.

West Bank and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project

While most of the New Orleans area had begun construction of its hurricane protection levees following Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the West Bank went without flood protection because of disputes between environmentalists and large land developers. No one could decide where to put the levees. Developers wanted to enclose large undeveloped tracts of land for future growth of western Jefferson Parish, but environmentalists wanted to limit the area of protection to save the wetland tracts and leave space for construction of Jean Lafitte National Park. Regardless, no levees were built, and west Jefferson remained exposed to hurricane flooding.

Following Hurricane Juan, the West Jefferson Levee District, with help from Jefferson Parish, completely rebuilt the levee system in west Jefferson. However, the district knew that even this rebuilt system would not provide sufficient protection. With leadership provided by Congressman Bob Livingston and others, the district approached Congress and in 1986 secured authorization and funding to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers build the West Bank Hurricane Protection Levee, Westwego to Harvey Canal.

The project began in 1991 as the Westwego to Harvey Canal Project, which was designed to bring hurricane flood protection from the City of Westwego to the west bank of the Harvey Canal. In 1996, the project expanded to include the Lake Cataouatche Levee extending protection to the communities of Avondale, Bridge City and Waggaman and the East of Harvey Canal project to provide flood protection for the communities of Gretna and Harvey as well as for Algiers in Orleans and Belle Chasse in Plaquemines.

In 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the New Orleans area bringing wide spread flooding from the failure of existing flood protection projects. Following the hurricane, congress provided sufficient funding and directed the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to completely rebuild the failed flood protection system. Of benefit to the citizens of the west bank, congress also funded and directed the Corps to rapidly complete the West Bank and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project and to raise its elevation to protect against the 100 year storm.

In 2008, West Bank and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project once again expanded, adding the Western Tie-In. This extended flood protection to the parish of St. Charles up to the Davis Pond Fresh Water Diversion levees. The project is scheduled to expand again in 2009 to include the GIWW West Closure, which will add another navigable flood gate and a drainage pump station both to be located just south of the Algiers and Harvey canals. The addition of this feature will eliminate the need for increasing the height of approximately 20 miles of levees along the Algiers Canal and along the Harvey Canal north of the Estelle Pump Station.

The West Jefferson Levee District assumed the responsibility of non-federal sponsor working with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the project.

Today, the West Bank and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project consists of approximately 56 miles of levees, 11 miles of floodwall and 2 (two) navigable flood gates, providing flood protection for portions of Jefferson Parish’s West Bank, Algiers (Orleans Parish), Belle Chasse (Plaquemines Parish) and west St. Charles Parish to the Davis Pond Fresh Water Diversion levees

Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority

The Louisiana legislature created the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and placed it under control of the governor and directed this organization to represent Louisiana before congress in all matters concerning hurricane flood protection and coastal restoration.

Under pressure from state citizens following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Louisiana legislature took additional action. It determined that flood protection of its citizens would be better served by combining its many New Orleans area levee districts into two flood protection authorities. During a 2006 special legislative session, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority—West and the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority—East were created.

The WJLD and that portion of the Orleans Levee District lying on the West Bank were placed under the management of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority—West. During the 2007 legislative session the Algiers Levee District was created by reorganizing the Orleans Levee District giving Algiers its own levee district.

Under management of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority—West and in cooperation with the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, the West Bank and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project continues to be constructed with its completion scheduled for late 2011.