Hemelt: St. John levee protection out of residents’ hands

Published 12:02 am Wednesday, August 30, 2017

When it comes to levee construction and major storm/hurricane flood protection, the residents of St. John the Baptist Parish have done enough.

It’s time for our elected leaders locally, as well as our regional and national leaders, to back up what the residents have started.

The weekend flooding in Texas and extended strike this week by Hurricane Harvey into Louisiana reinforces that it’s a matter of only “when” the next storm strikes our homes and neighborhoods with the same blow that Hurricane Isaac delivered in 2012.

The news was great in December, when local officials boasted that then-President Barack Obama officially signed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act into law.

As signed and included, the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain levee project would add a needed level of protection to St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and St. James parishes with construction of earthen levees, floodwalls and pump stations around Montz, LaPlace, Reserve and Garyville.

The project has been discussed for close to a half century and studied to the tune of millions of dollars, but now we were going to see action.

With a total cost of more than $700 million, St. John Parish is responsible for a cost-share of approximately $50 million with an estimated $5 million in annual operations and maintenance costs, according to St. John officials.

Well, that’s where St. John residents came into play, doing so in emphatic fashion April 29, when voters approved a 7-mill property tax by a 3,019-to-1,788 margin, representing 63 percent favored the tax.

Early voters favored the measure 743 to 410, while 27 of the Parish’s 39 precincts favored the effort.

In times that aren’t exactly economically booming, our community and our voters said they were willing to spend some of their own hard earned money for a dedicated levee-protection funding source.

That’s in addition to regular taxes already paid that fund things like government salaries and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects.

Unfortunately, the good news stops there. It was clear by the beginning of the summer that President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget would not include funding for the Army Corps of Engineers to begin the West Shore Project.

Residents and local business interests were again asked to help by imploring our federal delegation to work with their colleagues in Washington to amend the budget.

The St. John Parish Council approved a resolution asking our President and Federal Delegation to expedite funding to begin levee design and construction.

A sample letter to senators and congressmen was drafted and made available at sjbparish.com or through the Parish Office, 1801 West Airline Highway in LaPlace.

Our president is a Republican, our two U.S. Senators are Republicans and one of the two members of the House of Representatives that cover St. John the Baptist Parish is Republican.

If there was ever a deck stacked to deliver results, the time is now. Still, we worry that it won’t be enough.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves was in the River Parishes this month talking levee protection, saying there are upwards of $90 billion in backlogged projects through the Corps of Engineers, and the White House would only ask for about a billion dollars a year in construction.

You can do the math and see getting our project funded and finished still seems like a long shot.

We’re told our protection project will only happen if multiple funding sources are brought together.

Well, St. John residents pay taxes for general federal administration, approved additional taxes for a local funding source and elected the leadership to deliver the rest.

We’re watching and we’re waiting.

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.