Hard to believe

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 30, 2009



LAPLACE – As the final days of the final year of the first decade of the 21st century come to a close, L’Observateur takes a look back at the stories making headlines in 2009.

The year began with the inauguration of St. John Parish’s first new district attorney in 24 years. Former Court of Appeals Judge Tom Daley took over the reins from the retiring John Crum. In a speech following the inauguration, Daley spoke of a commitment to work with parish judges and St. John Sheriff Wayne Jones to fix a parish justice system that he described as “mired in bureaucracy.”

“This will be a long process,” Daley said. “I don’t have a magic wand that will fix everything. It only happens one person at a time and one issue at a time.”

A souring national economy sparked concerns that a proposed pig iron plant to be built in St. James Parish may not get built at all. Officials with North Carolina-based Nucor Corp. said in February their plans to construct a new facility on a 4,000-acre tract of land in Convent might have to be altered or scrapped in the wake of a down economic outlook. The project received a renewed shot in the arm later in the year when Nucor purchased a portion of the land needed for the facility.

River Parishes residents who lacked a reliable mode of transportation became mobile again thanks to a long-awaited regional bus service. Three 12-passenger vehicles hit the streets of St. John and St. Charles parishes in February. Transit officials hope to eventually add a fourth vehicle in the near future.

In March, officials behind a proposed $150 million sugar refinery set to be built in Reserve decided to leave St. John Parish in favor of a more suitable site in St. James Parish. Officials from Cargill and representatives for Louisiana Sugar Growers and Refiners forged a partnership with Imperial Sugar to expand on an existing sugar refinery in Gramercy. Construction on the facility began in November.

Voters in St. John Parish went to the polls in April and passed a series of bond propositions designed to help the parish pay for a multitude of public improvement projects. The $29.5 million in bond revenue would help the parish pay for improvements to drainage, roads, recreational facilities, flood protection and parish offices.

Projects covered by the 2009 bond issue include improvements to three busy intersections along Airline Highway, expansions to water treatment plants in Reserve and Edgard, excavations of several drainage canals throughout the east bank, and construction of an all-encompassing government office complex in LaPlace.

“The Wall the Heals,” a 250-foot-long, half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, made its way to St. Charles Parish in May when it stopped at Harry Hurst Middle School in Destrehan. It was the first time the traveling exhibit has visited the River Parishes. A police and motorcycle escort guided the wall on its trip from Mississippi to the elementary school.

A $1.56 million contract to build a steel guardrail along dangerous portions of Airline Highway in St. Charles was awarded in June. The guardrail was designed to prevent motorists who travel Airline from swerving into the murky water of the Borrow Pit Canal, which is said to be 30 feet deep in some places.

Before the installation of the guardrail, residents asked parish and state officials for years to do something to keep motorists from crashing into the canal. Since 2002, more than a dozen people have lost their lives in accidents along that stretch of road. Although the guardrail, which stretches from Almedia Road to Apple Street, was completed in December, it could not stop a family of three from crashing their Chevrolet pickup truck into the water during a heavy rainstorm. The family managed to work their way out of the truck with the help of a passing motorist.

St. John Parish played host to a pair of town hall meetings in the summer that touched on a series of hot-button national issues, the most prominent being the heated debate over national healthcare.

In July, three members of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet came to the National Guard Readiness Center in Reserve as part of a national “listening tour” of rural areas. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki fielded questions from about 400 area residents.

In August, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu continued the dialogue on healthcare when she scheduled her own town hall meeting in the same location. More than 500 people from across the area piled into the hall to have their voices heard.

“My job is to do my very best to represent you when it comes time to vote, Landrieu said. “We are here to discuss the facts and hopefully dispel some of the rumors and misinformation that has surfaced about this legislation.”

LaPlace finally saw the opening of a new elementary school after a one-year delay. The long-awaited Emily C. Watkins Elementary School held classes for the first time when school returned to session Aug. 6. The school was named for a parish educator who served St. John for more than 50 years.

In September, St. John Parish officials put to rest more than eight years of debate with the opening of the parish’s new $759,000 animal shelter. The new facility, which is the first in a two-phase project, adds space for 10 cats, 20 kittens, 15 dogs and 20 puppies. The parish also plans to continue to use the old shelter, which has space for 16 cats and 19 dogs, as a holding facility where sick animals can be isolated and treated.

After only a year-and-a-half on the job, St. John Parish President Bill Hubbard abruptly resigned from office in September in the wake of allegations that he took a series of bribes from parish contractors to help him purchase a new car for a female acquaintance.

Hubbard went before a federal judge the following day and pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges.

U.S. Attorney Jim Letten said investigators discovered Hubbard had taken bribes totaling $20,000 from three parish contractors. Those contractors were later revealed as Davezac Consulting Engineers of Destrehan and Pipeworks Plumbing & Demolition and Parson & Sanderson Inc., both of Harahan. Four contracts that the parish had with the firms were eventually terminated.

St. John Chief Administrative Officer Pat McTopy took over in Hubbard’s absence while the parish prepares to hold a special election to determine a replacement.

In October, officials in St. Charles Parish erected a proper memorial for the 77 residents killed in a 1976 ferry accident. The George Prince Ferry collided with a Norwegian tanker as the boat made its way across the Mississippi River from Destrehan to Luling.

Hundreds, including family of those who perished in the accident, were on hand at the East Bank Bridge Park for the emotional dedication.

Following nearly three years of struggle over repairs and land use, officials in St. John Parish said in November the Edgard-Reserve ferry might soon return to operation. The parish legal team announced a financial agreement with St. John the Baptist Catholic Church that may get the ferry up and running by early 2010.

With the opening of the busy holiday shopping season in December, the St. John Sheriff’s office installed the first wave of a series of crime cameras to help deputies keep an eye on high crime areas in the parish. The Sheriff’s Office plans to install about 20 cameras throughout the parish that will be tied in to the parish’s 911 communications center.

Although the parish managed to avoid the threat of stormy weather during hurricane season, a series of heavy rainstorms caused widespread flooding throughout St. John and St. Charles parishes in early December.

The flooding began in St. John Parish, where storms dumped more than 7 inches of rain in less than 24 hours. The rain flooded about 20 homes in Reserve, Garyville and Mt. Airy and made several streets impassible.

A week later, another round of heavy rain dumped nearly eight inches of rain on parts of St. Charles Parish. The water topped low levees and flooded about 19 homes in the parish. Parish officials spent almost a week pumping the water out of the streets and into drainage canals. The series of storms made the month the wettest December on record for the area.

December’s wet conditions, coupled with an unseasonably high Mississippi River, nearly put a damper on the River Parishes historic tradition of lighting bonfires on Christmas Eve along the levee in St. James and St. John parishes. Officials with the Corps of Engineers and the Pontchartrain Levee district had ordered a hold on issuing permits for the bonfires out of fear the extra weight could compromise the earthen levees. The fears were quickly quashed when the river level returned to normal heights.