By Nikki Buskey
Continued delays on the Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection project have left Terrebonne Parish vulnerable to flooding, according to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
The lawmaker met with top U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials Wednesday to demand a firm deadline for a delayed report on the levee project and to ask the corps to put forward a viable, cost-effective project that would finally provide adequate flood protection for the region.
"The Morganza delays are beyond frustrating," Vitter said. "The delay is another example of the corps' unacceptable foot-dragging and gross mismanagement of taxpayer dollars, and that's exactly what I expressed to Lieutenant General (Tom) Bostick, (commanding general of the corps). Morganza-to-the-Gulf has been authorized twice by Congress, and the corps' continued delay is a slap in the face to south Louisianans who are under threat of flooding every summer."
Morganza is a system of levees, floodgates and a lock on the Houma Navigation Canal aimed at protecting residents of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes from storm flooding. The corps has been working on the federal project since 1992.
When the project finally won authorization in Congress in 2007, 15 years after it was conceived, it was kicked back to the corps for another round of study. Corps officials said the project would have to be updated with new flood protection standards enacted after Hurricane Katrina, and a new price tag would have to be calculated for it.
In that time, the cost of the project has swelled from an initial $886 million estimate to more than $10 billion and suffered continual delays, leaving residents skeptical it will ever be built.
"There is no question that areas of Terrebonne and Lafourche are vulnerable as a result of corps' delays. These same communities now risk the corps pricing them out of protection with a $10.6 billion proposal that will never get funded. We appreciate Vitter's efforts to nudge the corps off of the rodent wheel," said Garrett Graves, chair of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana.
Earlier this month, the corps announced a five-year study updating the cost and construction standards of the Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane protection system will be delayed for six months to a year. The report was due in December.
René Poché, a spokesman for the corps, said the agency is disappointed the report will be late. The corps is conducting a "more rigorous" economic analysis on the project. Every corps project study examines the consequences of not building the project to determine the project's benefits. Poché said the corps is reanalyzing this "future without project" scenario to make sure Morganza's benefits are "accurately portrayed."
"We are finalizing an aggressive schedule to complete the economic re-analysis, which includes compressed times for review" by internal and external experts, he said.
A draft of the report will be released to the public for a 45-day review as soon as that economic re-analysis has been completed, and technical and policy reviews have been conducted.
In the meantime, the Terrebonne Levee District is moving forward to build a scaled-down version along the corps' approved path with state and local taxpayer money. The district's hope is to get some flood protection in place quickly to protect against tropical storms and minor hurricanes.
On Dec. 8, the Levee District will ask parish voters to approve a 1/2-cent sales tax aimed at raising as much as $150 million to finish the interim levee system.
In his meeting with Bostick, Vitter said he asked the corps to:
n Provide a list of viable, cost-effective solutions for Morganza using a combination of the corps' general engineering and design standards and post-Katrina protection standards.
n Provide a firm deadline for the submission of the overdue Morganza report.
n Provide a path forward where the state can act as the lead project manager to help cut construction costs and expedite delivery of Morganza.
"This path will allow state and local officials to continue building the first lifts of Morganza while our federal leaders work on getting a completed system," said Reggie Dupre, director of the Terrebonne Levee Board.
Staff Writer Nikki Buskey can be reached at 857-2205 or firstname.lastname@example.org.