Flood threat dominates Morgan City's year

By: GEOFFREY STOUTE
MORGAN CITY — While the threat of flooding from the bulging Atchafalaya River is long gone this year, the challenges this city faced earlier this year because of it top the list of events in the city.

During this past spring, the Atchafalaya rose to 10.35 feet in Morgan City, less than 0.2 below the record crest of 10.53 that was achieved in 1973.

Both this year and in 1973, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operated the Morganza Spillway, the only two times the flood control structure — which takes pressure off the Mississippi River by diverting water through the Atchafalaya Spillway to the Gulf of Mexico via Morgan City and the nearby Wax Lake Outlet just west of Patterson — has been used.

The city prepared for the flood by closing 22 of its 27 floodgates, while flood protection baskets and jumbo sandbags were placed on levees and roadways in areas vulnerable to backwater flooding.

“That occupied quite a bit of our time,” this spring and summer, Mayor Matte said of the flood.

Berwick Bay traffic was cut off temporarily as floodwaters submerged the docks, while traffic was halted on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway’s Alternate Route, too.

To the east, a barge was sunk in Bayou Chene, which kept backwater flooding from the Atchafalaya River from infiltrating subdivisions, particularly Lakeside.

The barge held more than 3 feet of additional water from entering these areas after it was anchored and sheetpiling and other items put in place.

“It was what I think was a great experience as far as a cooperation that we shared with not only the citizens but also the other local governmental agencies,” Matte said. “The parish and the citizens worked together very well.”

Matte also was pleased with the Corps commitment to the assist the area throughout the flood as well as the Louisiana National Guard’s help.

While initial projections for flood levels in the Atchafalaya here were in the neighborhood of 12.5 to 13 feet in the water, the city received much less, which the Corps said was due to many reasons, including drought-like conditions present in the Morganza’s tailbay, which soaked up the water quickly.

“Despite all of the potential for a lot of bad things to happen, luckily they didn’t,” Matte said.

In Morgan City, the flood did leave some lingering effects as cracks began to occur in the city’s floodwall, while repairs will have to be made to the city’s wharf as well as floodgates.

To date, flood protection baskets remain and will not be removed until the city is given direction from the Federal Emergency Management Agency about high its levees must be raised in order for them to be certified as well as the correct base flood elevations for homes in the city.

City leaders have been appealing the justification behind the proposed base flood elevations since FEMA’s announcement in early 2008 that the city’s backwater levee system needs to be 10 feet high, rather than the existing 8 feet.

The proposed maps dampened plans to develop the city’s first subdivision in more than three decades and has left the city fighting for the past few years to prove to FEMA that characteristics it says occur during its model runs do not occur.

The city has made headway during the past year, convincing FEMA that:

—A vast backwater area north of Lake Palourde can absorb any excess water during high water events.

—There are miles of marsh and land south of Morgan City that absorbs storm surge before it enters the area.

—Areas the city said were not flooded during Hurricane Rita that FEMA said their models showed experienced flooding now reflect reality.

FEMA and the city also have agreed that the method of measuring gauge height and gauge data that was being used in the models was not the same as the ones in Morgan City uses.

“I do think we’ve made some progress this year, but the problem is it took us this much time to get to this particular point,” Matte said.

Because the city’s cash allocated for the appeal — roughly $140,000 — has been nearly exhausted, and city leaders have been faced with a challenge of an apparent tilt in the water during certain storm model runs, city leaders are content with getting their proposed base flood elevations, and if financially feasible, raising its levees to reach these levels.

“Apparently, that’s been the culprit all along,” he said of the tilt.

The goal is for the city to be able to keep its current BFE (+2 feet) by raising its levees — if financially feasible — to the heights required to keep these BFEs as well as constructing a pump station. In its floodmaps, FEMA proposed an updated BFE of +7 feet.

Currently, the city is awaiting information from FEMA that will allow the city as well as its consultants to review some of the information and comment on the adequacy of a storm model for a 100 year storm.

Once an agreement between the city and FEMA has been reached on the 100 year storm, or one that has a 1 percent chance of occurring, then the city will receive its BFEs, which it will then decide whether it agrees upon or not.

If the project is not feasible from an engineering standpoint — but more likely it would be because of economics — the city will have to decide whether it can live with the BFEs FEMA issues them or determine if there is another scenario that provides the city with other options.

In other news during the past year, the citizens of Morgan City agreed to impose a 0.3 sales tax here for the next 12 years to fund nearly $4 million in roadwork the city has identified.

The implementation of the sales tax will go into effect Jan. 1, and Matte said he was hopeful that all of the work identified could be complete during the first year and in years after, other roadwork that arises could be tackled.

In another financial matter this year, the current mayor and council have proposed a salary increase for the next mayor and council when they take office in January 2013.

The proposed salary adjustments will increase the mayor’s salary from $54,000 to $63,000 per year, while the council’s salary will be increased from $7,200 to $12,000 annually.

The mayor’s salary has not been changed since December 2003, while the council’s salary has not been changed since the city’s Home Rule Charter was adopted in 1987.

The measure will be considered for adoption at Tuesday’s regular council meeting following a public hearing.

As for ongoing and future projects in the city, the list is plentiful. The council has begun work on the rehab of its aging master sewer lift station at the south end of Federal Avenue.

The project was awarded to Hemphill Construction for $954,824.

The project will consist of installing a new 8-foot diameter concrete manhole and tying three mains that go through the pump station’s existing manhole into the new one to continue operations with pumps that are brought onsite.

Then, crews will rehab the current pump station, including installing new pumps and rehabbing the walls.

After the work is completed, the refurbished pump station will be brought back online, and the newly installed manhole will be used to dispose of sewage that is removed using the city’s vacuum truck.

As of mid-December, the Hemphill was doing prep work for the project

The new pumps have been ordered and when they come in, “they’ll (Hemphill) actually be able to go to really work.”

The city also has begun work on the proposed Cypress Park and accompanying baseball field.

Some construction work on the project, in the works for a couple of years, was awarded to Southern Constructors LLC of New Iberia for $383,045. The company is completing concrete work at the baseball site as well as preparing the field and installing drainage needed.

At Cypress Park — the site of the former Morgan City Swamp Gardens — which is being transformed into a passive park, Southern Constructors has begun pouring cement for the figure eight trail through the park.

Other work at the ballpark, adjacent to the current Complex Park, as well as the passive park, will be bid out separately or complete by city crews, all when funds become available.

The nearly $430,000 in work is being funded by monies from the H&B Young Foundation.

Also during the past year, the city is inching ever closer to bidding out work on the first of a series of proposed cabins at Lake End Parkway.

It has received an additional $150,000 from the legislature that is administered through the state Department of Natural resources. The extra funding will allow the city to bid out $850,000 worth of work.

Matte said he thinks the city will be able to bid work for about four cabins.

In another project, the design phase of a new Louisiana Energy and Power Authority power plant, which will be built in Morgan City on Youngs Road near the Atchafalaya Bit and Bridle Club’s horse arena.

In other action during the past year, the city:

—Has been working to update its zoning ordinances, too. In January, a public meeting will be held to prepare to start to review some of the recommendations that will come out of the new zoning plans. The new zoning plans are expected for adoption around June.

—Has been working toward completing Phase 3 of work on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which will consist of resurfacing and upgrading the thoroughfare from the entrance to the Comfort Inn and Suites to Business 90 East. The city already has completed two phases of work, which targeted the areas of the road in the poorest condition. The project already has been designed, and Matte it expects the project to be underway in the next couple months.

—Completed sewer rehabilitation work in Walsh Subdivision and the installation of thousands of “touch” water meters.

—Rescinded the city’s 2 percent pay cut that had been in effect for a portion of the year and included in the city’s 2012 budget the implementation of a 2 percent longevity raise for city employees with at least a year’s experience. That raise was not included in the 2011 budget, because at the time, the city was strapped for cash.

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