Levee Battle

by Jeremy Alford

State wants more of an active role in local levee systems.

Administrative officials are expected to push a set of proposals during the special session that convenes next Sunday to grant the state greater oversight of local levee boards.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco announced her intentions this week as a contentious debate continues to flare up regarding a series of south Louisiana levees that failed in the face of Hurricane Katrina.

There are 24 levee districts that operate individual boards in the state to administer flood control programs. Most have their own budget with very little oversight, as well as full-time staffs and policing powers in certain cases.

A group of Republican lawmakers wants to consolidate all the boards and place full control in the lap of the state, in hopes that the move will impress Congress enough to dole out additional dollars. Levee boards around the state have built up various reputations, ranging from corrupt to pristine.

But any proposal to eliminate the boards, along with their memberships, could face stiff opposition from local lawmakers. "Combining all of the levee boards is a drastic step," said Rep. Damon Baldone of Houma. "I have faith in our levee boards in Terrebonne and Lafourche. I think it'll be a step back to combine them all."

Windell Curole, manager of the South Lafourche Levee District and a member of the Association of Levee Boards of Louisiana, believes the proposal is rooted firmly in politics. As officials continue to investigate the causes behind failures in St. Bernard and Orleans parishes, they may be trying to shift blame down, Curole says. But he adds that the end result of stripping local boards of oversight will only be a muddled system.

"The concept of always having consistency is a good idea," he says. "But when you're dealing with flood issues you need a local will to make things happen. It takes a local group to see the importance of something big. Administrations come and go, but we're always here. You don't have local will on the state level."

Rep. Warren Triche of Chackbay wouldn't mind seeing all of the levee boards disbanded. "All these levee board members, except for a small handful, aren't worth a flip," he says. "They spend taxpayers' money and don't have to answer to no one. If you put one person in an authoritative position, at least they would have to be responsible to the people."

Triche says the debate has all the makings for a barnburner, one that will surely create tension on both sides. "Some of these levee board commissioners would sell their mothers' gold teeth to keep their positions," Triche says.

New Orleans is at the center of the debate. Critics blame a variety of local agencies in the Crescent City with levee oversight for the recent flooding. Additionally, Orleans Levee Board President Jim Huey resigned last week amid allegations he awarded contracts to relatives and overstepped his own authority.

Terrebonne Levee Director Jerome Zeringue says he would support an oversight system like the one that exists between the Board of Secondary and Elementary Education and parish school boards, where the local entity still has some control over finances and priorities.

"I think lumping everything together is very shortsighted," Zeringue says. "It's ineffectual to vest all the authority in a state agency without the input and support of the locals."

If that were to happen, Zeringue says he fears south Louisiana parishes would be battling for attention against those in the north, where the challenges are completely different.

Turning the House and Senate interim committees on Coastal Restoration and Flood Control into standing committees that could pass out legislation is being considered, says Dupre. It would provide a legislative hub for the tens of billions of dollars worth of related projects.

The top projects being discussed include a massive $20 billion levee system stretching from Morgan City to Slidell. It would include several ongoing projects including Morganza-to-the-Gulf, a 72-mile system of locks, levees, floodgates and dams.

The centerpiece of the proposal, Morganza is estimated to cost $1.7 billion to protect from Category 5 storms and will take years to build. Construction is set to begin soon on the the most-vulnerable areas of the parish, including Pointe-aux-Chenes and lower Montegut.

Additionally, levees need to be repaired in southern Terrebonne, where Hurricane Rita made landfall. The storm's southeast winds overwhelmed the area's system of drainage levees, busting 33 gaps in Chauvin alone and pushing water into homes.

Rep. Loulan Pitre of Cut Off says all the debates in the upcoming special session could get contentious, which causes him to worry that major problems facing locales like Terrebonne and Lafourche, challenges that have been present for decades, could go overlooked.

"I fear that the focus on remediation between the two hurricanes may take attention away from things that should have been done some time ago, like coastal restoration, like upgrading the levee protections and like highways," he says. "We can't afford to do that. We need to use the devastation to reassess everything and to reassess what we want Louisiana to look like."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at [email protected].