New elevation standard is needed here, McGovern says

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 8, 2000

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / March 8, 2000

LAPLACE – If Gerald McGovern had his way, all houses on concrete slabs and all roadways in St. John the Baptist Parish would be at least 5 feet higher.Since 1998, McGovern has been trying to convince the parish government to set a standard elevation for housing slabs and roadways.

A retired electrical engineer and 16-year resident of the New Era subdivision, McGovern has been studying drainage, levees, pumps, canals and hurricanes.

He has also been writing letters and phoning parish officials for the past two years trying to make them understand what he has discovered.

McGovern’s calculations all point to one thing that would make the houses safer from flooding. Higher concrete slabs and higher roadways.He would like the St. John Parish Council to pass an ordinance setting astandard elevation that would place a house at least 3 feet above the highest flood water.

At this time, the highest recorded flooding occurred during Hurricane Juan when the water rose to 4.75 feet above mean sea level. The ordinance wouldalso put a set elevation of roadways at least 18 inches above the highest flood mark. At the present elevation, houses were only 3 inches above theflood waters of Hurricane Juan.

Most people would say this is cost-prohibitive, but McGovern isn’t proposing tearing everything up and re-building all the streets and houses.

“I’m asking the parish to prepare for the future by setting up standards that we can live with,” said McGovern.

Before the U.S. Corps of Engineers built the levees along the Mississippi Riverthere was a natural gradient to the land built up as the river periodically overflowed its banks. This gradient went from the high point near the riverand down to its lowest point in the swamp to the north that borders on Lake Maurepas.

After the levees were built more and more people began to live in the area.

Airline Highway, Fairway Drive and Interstate 10 were built, and these became dams to the natural flow of water away from the river. As drainageimproved in the parish rainwater became less and less of a problem to the residents. However, as people and industry moved in, more and more waterwas being drained off into Lake Maurepas until today the threat of a hurricane pushing all that water from the lake into the houses north of Airline Highway has become a terrifying reality.

McGovern has become alarmed in the past several years because of the speed of development northward toward I-10. First, Sugar Ridge subdivisionexpanded, and now there is Foxwood right at the edge of the swamp.

“What the developers are doing is perfectly legal, and I have no problem with that,” McGovern said. “We will continue to push the envelope as far as wecan and build in the swamps. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It is humannature. But we should do it intelligently. We should be setting the standardsfor all building in the parish and make sure people meet these standards.”Making an ordinance setting slab elevations, said McGovern, would be one way to make sure the parish keeps people and houses protected from flood waters.

But Parish President Nickie Monica said it isn’t really the houses that are in danger.

“It is FEMA that set the elevations standards, ” said Monica, “and the houses don’t flood. It is the streets that flood, and we are addressing that rightnow.”McGovern is not convinced the Federal Emergency Management Administration knows what it is talking about.

“We shouldn’t go to FEMA for this,” said McGovern. “FEMA is not interested inthe parish’s business. FEMA is only interested in insurance claims.”C. J. Savoie, the parish engineer, has had several meetings with McGovern onthe issue and is convinced McGovern knows what he is talking about.

“This is a valid thing to do,” said Savoie. “Mr. McGovern’s proposal has a lot ofvalidity.”Councilman Ranney Wilson, who was the first to be contacted by McGovern, said, “We are concerned about this issue. We are doing the research. Rightnow we are waiting on the major drainage study that is being done. We don’twant to go overboard on this.”Savoie agreed.

“The plan has to be within reason for the people,” he said.

He is not convinced a slab elevation to over 7.5 feet above MSL would befeasible.

In a report he wrote to the parish council in August 1999, Savoie said, “The only problem with this proposal is that probably all development north of Fairway Drive would have to be filled before any construction would take place, and this would be very costly and may cause lot sales to be cost prohibitive.”However, in the same report, Savoie added, “I am of the opinion that Mr.

McGovern is correct in that we have to do something to stop the continued development of low elevation subdivisions. I think that a reasonabledocumented minimal elevation should be established for both streets and lots in the residential subdivision ordinance as a first step.”Savoie said he has been doing the research on the elevations and working with the parish Civil Defense.

“We have made progress, and I will recommend it to the council within the next 90 days,” said Savoie.

Wilson also said a change is going to come. “We will probably amend theexisting ordinance.””I’m not trying to stop development,” insisted McGovern. “I just want theparish to set the standards for development.”He thinks there is too much politics involved with the issue.

“We have the technology to do this,” McGovern said, “and the parish officials should be looking out for the people.”

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