Flood project divides Stephensville

By: MACK SPENCER

STEPHENSVILLE — A passionate crowd gathered at the fire station Tuesday to consider the plans formulated to help alleviate flooding concerns in the Bayou Estates and Harbor Estates subdivisions.

Dividing lines emerged fairly quickly, with many residents in the lowest-lying areas in favor of installing one of the flood protection schemes, while most of those against the plans bemoaned the ugliness of sheet pile, feared blocking the flow of water to wetlands or keeping water in the “fishbowl that would be created,” or doubted the efficacy of the plans presented.

St. Martin Parish President Guy Cormier told attendees that the parish council had set aside $2.2 million for the Lower St. Martin project out of a $5.2 million federal grant from a program for communities affected by hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The other $3 million will go to a joint project in Upper St. Martin and Iberia Parish.

Parish Councilman Carroll Delahoussaye of St. Martinville, who represents Lower St. Martin on the council, “worked hard to get this money for Lower St. Martin,” Cormier said. “I was amazed that he was able to get all that (grant) money for his district. There are a lot of needs in Upper St. Martin.”

The two plans presented by Cormier and Mo Saleh of Professional Engineering and Environmental Consultants in Westwego mainly differ in use of sheet pile and the number of floodgates. One plan includes about a third of a mile of sheet pile and would install one floodgate to the north of the subdivisions. The other plan, without sheet pile, would add another floodgate to the northeast and a long earthen berm.

Both plans would upgrade the existing pump; the plan with sheet pile adds another pump and drain pipe instead of the second floodgate. Without sheet pile, the project is $1.35 million; with sheet pile, the price jumps to $2.09 million.

Council members “looked at all the low-lying areas,” Cormier said. “We looked at a project to protect the whole area, and that was about $4.5 million. Will we have the opportunity to do more later? Probably. Can we do Bayou Estates and scratch that off the list. Yes.”

The more expensive project would protect the area up to four feet, Saleh said, keeping the lowest properties and streets free of floodwaters. The cheaper project would protect streets and utilities, lessening some parish manpower needs during high water events, but would not protect some 56 homes that are on the lowest-lying properties.

There are approximately 260 homes in Bayou Estates and Harbor Estates, most of which already sit at 4 feet of elevation or higher, Saleh said.

Other than keeping parish workers from having to perform some dangerous tasks in ditches and culverts, the cheaper plan “is no better than what you have now,” Cormier said.

Brandon Stockstill, an attorney hired by some of the opponents to the flood projects, questioned the destruction of wildlife habitat and associated environmental impacts, and the ugly views sheet pile would create for residents.

“We’re just asking if different options have been considered … besides sheet pile,” Stockstill said.

Opponents had also passed out a list of talking points as area residents entered the meeting. Those points called the plans presented up to and including those in the Tuesday meeting “voodoo engineering and economics,” for a plan that doesn’t increase the protection for most of the property in the area in question.

The points also echoed the concerns raised by Stockstill of the effect of the sheet pile project on the surrounding wetlands, and called for “independent environmental study and report (sic) from the various State and Federal agencies that have jurisdiction over our wetlands.”

“We choose to live here, and we deal with the water,” said resident Jack Vilas. “We all do. In the last 15 years, a weir was removed, and now there’s a lot less flooding.”

Earl King said flooding in the area is not that bad, and no deterrent to living there, as “there’s an active buy and sell market (for homes) in Harbor Estates.”

Donna Bernier complained that other areas, including where she lives on Stephensville Road, as well as parts of Landry and Tower Tank roads, will not be protected, and flood insurance is more expensive in those areas.

Elwood Scully, a supporter of the project, said not everyone is able to provide his or her own flood protection.

“I applaud those who can afford what they’ve done, but what about those who can’t afford it?” Scully asked. “We need to unite and work with the parish to get something done.”

Many residents also voiced concerns that the project could prevent proper drainage in some situations.

Others asked if the parish could help individual homeowners instead of constructing a bigger project.

“Can you take that money and help people elevate their houses?” asked Scott Green, who said his house was already at about 7 feet.

Cormier said the parish had looked into that, but “it would take $100,000 to $150,000 per house. None of the houses under 4 feet are on pillars. It would take $5.6 million, and we’ve got $2.2 million.”

Ann Hudson, who lives near the intersection of Susan and Kathy streets, said her property is always among the first to flood. “People always ask me when I’m going to get the parish to do something. Now they’re here with a plan and you don’t want it.”

“People always say we’re the stepchildren” in Lower St. Martin, resident Charlotte Ratcliff said. “Now they’re bringing money to spend here. Why fight it? We have the money, let’s not lose it.”

The parish is nearing the end of an allowed two-year design period. A six-month extension is allowed, and Saleh said the parish and his firm will apply for an extension.

Cormier said nothing has been decided, and that the parish council will take everybody’s concerns into consideration.

“If we wanted to jam this down everybody’s throats, like some people have said, this thing would be under construction right now,” Cormier said. “Our engineer said we needed more input.

“We’re going to take the information we’ve heard and find out some more information, and move forward as best we know how.”

The parish rejected a plan to build an earthen berm through what is now wetland forest. Mitigation fees would have been high, but the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers would not allow the project even with mitigation fees, because there is a viable alternative that would leave the wetland undisturbed.

Cormier said the parish stands behind St. Mary Levee District efforts to put a flood control structure in Bayou Chene, which will help prevent backwater flooding, but the $80 million estimate and an at least eight-year timeline on that project would do nothing to help Stephensville in the short term.

Some speakers during the meeting still insisted that the money should be put into the Chene project.

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