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Wanted: A Regional Flood Control Plan

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When reformers pushed through the idea of regional flood authorities, their rallying cry was the need for a regional approach to flood protection. The result of their efforts was legislative and voter approval of two regional levee authorities. Since then, one overriding goal should have guided the new flood authorities: the need for a new master plan for flood protection for all of southeast Louisiana. Sadly, that does not appear to be happening. Case in point: a proposal for putting permanent pumping stations at the northern ends of the three outfall canals that drain parts but not all of New Orleans. The proposal comes in response to a directive from Congress to protect the outfall canals from the kind of floodwall failures that occurred on two of the three canals during Hurricane Katrina. In late August, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers " the same folks who gave us the Katrina flood " issued a report to Congress proposing to build massive, permanent pumping stations near the scenic southern shores of Lake Pontchartrain. No doubt there are reasonable arguments for this idea, but the decision was made without any input whatsoever from the homeowners, businesses and neighborhoods that will be immediately and adversely affected by construction of the gigantic new pumping stations. That is not the way to plan or achieve flood control.

The group that put together this proposal discounted other alternatives, such as the idea of strengthening levees and floodwalls along the outfall canals. Lest they forget, not all floodwalls failed during Katrina. Those along the Orleans Outfall Canal held " probably because they were designed and built significantly better than those along the 17th Street Canal and the London Avenue Canal. Moreover, the Corps is building floodwalls right now along the Harvey Canal, so clearly there is nothing inherently wrong, from an engineering standpoint, with building floodwalls along canals. At a minimum, the Corps should step back, reconsider its options, and include in its decision-making process the stakeholders who will be directly and adversely affected by this proposal.

More important, the Corps and local governments must press for a true master plan with a regional approach to flood protection. More than two decades ago, the Corps adopted the Louisiana Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane and Flood Protection Plan " which failed during Katrina. A new plan with higher standards and a truly regional approach to flood protection is needed now. Projects that are essentially 'local" in nature, such as the outfall canals plan, must be part of an overall design for the entire Lake Pontchartrain Basin. In turn, a regional plan for flood control must coordinate the outfall canals' fate with all other individual pieces of the larger puzzle " to make sure that no single project is over-designed and no areas are under-protected.

Looking more closely at the proposal for new, permanent pumping stations at the ends of the outfall canals, it's impossible to say whether the Corps' idea represents the best engineering available or how it will fit into the larger scheme of regional flood protection. What is known is that this plan was adopted hastily and without the full participation of everyone who will be affected by it. In attempting to fulfill Congress' mandate, the Corps put together a 'partnering group" that included itself, officials from the Sewerage & Water Board, Jefferson Parish leaders, some members of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Authority-East, and various 'community leaders" " none of whom live or own businesses in the adversely affected areas. The Corps' failure to include affected stakeholders before the final decisions were made all but guarantees costly and time-consuming lawsuits challenging the validity of those decisions.

To be clear, we fully support the idea of making all of southeast Louisiana safe from future storms. In fact, that's our point. The plan that the Corps and its 'partnering group" are proposing will protect most residents on the East Bank of Orleans Parish and some on the East Bank of Jefferson, but it will do nothing for eastern New Orleans, the Lower Ninth Ward, Kenner, or St. Bernard, St. Tammany, St. Charles, St. John, Ascension, Livingston or Tangipahoa parishes. Storm surges in Lake Pontchartrain threaten all those areas, so why not design a plan to stop the lake from filling up in the first place? Many, including some members of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Authority-East, have called for floodgates at the Rigolets, Chef Pass and the Intracoastal Waterway, along with closure of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO). That idea would protect all parts of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin reduce the threat of flooding from the city's outfall canals. That's the kind of thinking citizens wanted when they voted to consolidate the levee boards. We urge the Corps and Louisiana's representatives in Congress to keep the big picture in mind " and to include all stakeholders from the get-go.

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