Council frustrated with drainage; administration touts progress

Published 8:42 am Saturday, June 28, 2014

By Monique Roth

LAPLACE — Many St. John the Baptist Parish residents are of the opinion there’s one place they should feel safe and secure during a thunderstorm: their homes.

That notion, however, has been tested recently.

This week’s summer thunderstorms caused flash flooding situations for many parish residents, either leaving them stranded in their homes or unable to get home as rising water engulfed streets and accumulated quickly onto driveways across the parish.

Drainage concerns dominated dialogue at Tuesday night’s council meeting when council members insisted administration should take drastic measures to ensure street flooding is no longer a continuous, looming threat to residents every time it rains.

Parish President Natalie Robottom was absent for most of the council meeting, with Chief Administrative Officer Randy Vincent and Director of Emergency Preparedness Jobe’ Boucvalt fielding many of the complaints and questions about drainage issues and projects.

One of the main areas of council interest was pumping stations, which are located throughout the parish in historically flood-prone areas.

Vincent said since 2010, when Robottom started in office, multiple drainage projects have been completed and multiple pumps installed.

Boucvalt adamantly told the council that pump stations throughout the parish weren’t the final or even best fix.

“What we need is a levee,” Boucvalt said.

He explained high lake levels and other circumstantial situations sometimes mean the pumps can not operate at full capacity, if even at all.

District III Councilman Lennix Madere Jr. said when he took office in 2012 he suggested a parish drainage department be formed with the sole purpose of clearing debris from drainage.

“If this is your biggest problem, to me, that should be a department,” Madere said. “Do we need a levee? Of course we do. Do we need a drainage department? Of course we do.”

Councilwoman District VII Cheryl Millet agreed, saying “put money where it needs to be put. Put it in drainage.”

During the discussion, no council member contested claims drainage was the parish’s biggest issue.

“We’ve been in this situation before,” Councilwoman At Large for Division B Jaclyn Hotard said. “The problem is getting worse.”

She urged administration to “stop making excuses and start fixing these things.”

In a Wednesday interview, Robottom highlighted the extensive drainage work the parish has undergone since her start in office, adding many more improvements are on the way.

“A lot of work is being done and a lot of money is being spent,” Robottom said.

She said the vast majority of the parish’s 22 current pumps have been installed under her administration, adding more are coming.

She said drainage pumps will continue to be installed in areas where engineer reports direct. She did express concern, however, that spending millions of dollars in parish funds on pumps is less money the parish will have to put towards their portion of the West Lake Pontchartrain Levee, if approved.

Essentially, she said, the pumps are a quick-fix band-aid to drainage issues that only a levee has the possibility of eradicating.

Robottom said drainage issues have been exacerbated by several factors, including continued paving and development of acreage around the parish, as well as 2012’s Manhole Restoration Project.

The manhole project’s purpose was to restore a number of defective manholes and prevent hydrostatic infiltration. Work included plugging of holes and break repairs as necessary to seal the surface area to prevent infiltration from rain.  Several manholes located in low elevation areas such as ditches required reconstruction in order to raise the existing manhole up to a surface level above the flood waters. 

Robottom said the work, while a positive for and necessary to the sewer system, drastically affected drainage in that rainwater is now not infiltrating the sewer system, causing it to back up more in the streets.

As far as creation of a drainage department, Robottom said there are Public Works personnel specifically assigned to drainage, and creation of a drainage department would actually just be renaming existing employees. She added the parish just completed an extensive canal cleaning project.

Future drainage projects for which applications have already been submitted include Belle Pointe pump stations and McReine Road and Mt. Airy drainage improvements.

An application is under review for $2.2 million worth of bar screen cleaners for the Airport Road and Homewood pumps, which will prevent debris from affecting the pumps’ effectivity.

Projects scheduled to be approved this summer include Airport Road pump station reconstruction and a River Forest canal extension, and Director of Communications Paige Falgoust said the design has been completed and permits received for the Foxwood subdivision levee.

Over $4 million in improvements to the Vicknair Canal and drainage projects in Reserve and Garyville round off the list of drainage projects Robottom said she is determined to see completed sooner rather than later.

She stressed her team is working hard to ensure all residents are safe and secure, as well as making sure federal disaster recovery money the parish received is being utilized to create the biggest impact for residents.

“More money is being allotted now than ever before from a variety of sources,” Robottom said.