These 3 parishes face billions of dollars in damage without coastal plan, state warns

By Mark Schleifstein

Source: | The Times-Picayune

September 19, 2017

Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes will lose hundreds of square miles of land and face billions of dollars in flood damage if the Louisiana does not implement its $50 billion, 50-year plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection. That was the message delivered by Johnny Bradberry, chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, to a North Shore audience Tuesday (Sept. 19) at breakfast briefing sponsored by the Bureau of Governmental Research.

“This is a very scary situation,” Bradberry told more than 200 people while viewing a state map with 2,100 square miles tinged in red, representing land lost if the master plan is not adopted. “I don’t know about you, but it scared the hell out of me and I have a hard time sleeping at night when I think about those things and the hurdles we have to face.”

Bradberry outlined a bleak future without the plan:

  • By 2067, Jefferson Parish could lose 42 percent of its land area, including a wide swath in around Jean Lafitte and elsewhere in Barataria Basin. State officials estimate flood damage will total $500 million a year.
  • New Orleans would see a 32 percent land loss, including large swaths in New Orleans East, along the land bridge between the city and St. Tammany Parish and in lower Algiers. Annual flood damage could total $400 million.
  • St. Tammany would see minimal land loss, mostly wetland areas along the edges of Lake Pontchartrain. But dramatic increases in storm surge heights would result in a $2 billion annual flood damage bill.

The coastal master plan would pay for 124 projects. Its restoration projects are designed to create 802 square miles of land, and the combination of restoration and protection projects are projected to reduce flood damage by as much as $150 billion over a half century.

The three parishes would see $11.4 billion spent on restoration, storm protection and flood risk and resilience projects, including large-scale marsh creation, the proposed Mid-Barataria sediment diversion,  construction of a storm surge barrier project at the Chef Menteur and Rigolets passes in Lake Pontchartrain, increasing the height of the New Orleans area levee system and completion of ring levees for Slidell. Also included would be several non-structural risk projects: floodproofing businesses and either elevating houses or buying the property and moving residents to other areas.

If all those projects are constructed and work as they are proposed, they might stave off some of the worst effects of continued coastal erosion, Bradberry said:

  • Jefferson Parish could see its 50-year land loss totals cut by 56 percent, and its annual economic damages reduced by $40 milion after 25 years, and $300 million after 50 years.
  • Orleans Parish would see an 83 percent reduction in land loss, accompanied by a $70 million reduction in annual flood damages by the plan’s 25th year, and $200 million by 50 years.
  • St. Tammany would see a 100 percent reduction in land loss, accompanied by an $800 million reduction in flood damages after 25 years, and $1 billion after 50 years.

Assuring that the master plan is fully financed remains the biggest hurdle, Bradberry said. Louisiana has been the beneficiary of revenue from fines and other fees levied against BP and its drilling partners involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The state also expects to continue to receive money from both state mineral revenue and federal Gulf of Mexico offshore oil revenue for restoration and a few protection projects. Bradberry said the state is pretty certain it will have $10 .7 billion to spend on projects during the plan’s first 15 years, and he expects about another $10 billion from existing funding sources during the remainder of the plan’s lifetime.

That leaves about $30 billion in unfunded work. And Mark Davis, director of Tulane’s Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy and the Tulane University ByWater Institute, who shared the Covingtonforum with Bradberry, warned that the coastal master plan does not address all of the money issues posed by flooding. Not included, he said, are the operation and maintenance costs of existing levee systems, including the post-Hurricane Katrina levees in New Orleans.

It also doesn’t address many issues involving drinking water, which is expected to face increased threats of saltwater intrusion as sea level rise brings Gulf of Mexico waters closer to populated areas. Nor does it address interior drainage issues, such as the flooding experienced by the Baton Rouge region in August 2016, and the continuing drainage problems faced by the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board.

Some of those problems already are being faced by other communities, Davis said. Houston, even without a zoning ordinance, has a project aimed at addressing sinking ground caused by uncontrolled removal of freshwater from underground aquifers, he said.

Davis said the standards for protection from flooding vary, depending on the flood source. For instance, when the levees along the Mississippi River were built, “the basic policy is to never let it happen — ever.” River levees are reviewed to assure they can never be topped by a high river.

When the New Orleans area hurricane levees were first designed, they were tailored to protect from a “project hurricane,” with the definition provided by the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Weather Service. In the aftermath of Katrina, however, the levees were redesigned to a new understanding of the potential risk of hurricanes in the Gulf.

But they also were designed to an artificial standard set by Congress — the surge event caused by a hurricane with a 1 percent chance of occurring any year, the so-called 100-year storm defined by the National Flood Insurance Program. That definition is not adequate for a major metropolitan area, Davis said, but even that is better than New Orleans’ supposed standards for its drainage system.

“New Orleans plans for a 10-year event,” he said. “And they don’t even how how much rain that means.”

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