SWLA Is Mostly Unaware Of A Coastal Study That Could Affect Its Future
In mid-April, representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers-New Orleans Region traveled to Calcasieu Parish to see what parish residents had to say about the Corps’ tentative study of the Southwest Louisiana coast.
Only 20 parish residents showed up to make comments. Some of the most impassioned comments were about the possibility that some as-yet-unknown agency might, at some future point, exercise the “eminent domain” option to take low-lying properties in Calcasieu Parish from their owners.
For its tentative study, the Corps identified 4,558 houses near the Calcasieu River whose owners could make voluntary changes to elevation to raise their homes above floodways.
The controversial “eminent domain,” matter, which was the source of heated emotion at the meeting, concerned 394 houses the Corps had identified as homes that repeatedly flood and that lie in known floodways.
What seemed to be driving the emotion was the possibility that the owners of the 400 lowest-lying homes might find themselves deprived of their property against their will by means of “eminent domain.”
Police Juror Nic Hunter felt that at the presentation, the Corps was using “new language” that indicated a shift away from an earlier, single-minded focus on coastal restoration. “Two or three years ago, we believed the main thrust of [the] coastal restoration [study] was just that — coastal restoration. Now, it seems that the Corps’ sentiments are geared more toward the national flood insurance program … The shift is very troubling.”
Certainly the primary public concern about homeowners who have flood insurance for homes that flood repeatedly is that the taxpayer is footing the bill for repeated repairs to houses that routinely flood. It would, presumably, be this concern on which the Corps is focusing.
Hunter points out that national flood insurance isn’t like some federal programs in which the recipient pays nothing for benefits. Those who have national flood insurance do pay for it. “They have skin in the game,” says Hunter.
If the homeowner doesn’t have flood insurance, the matter is markedly different. Is a homeowner content to live in a home that floods frequently and simply bear the consequences? If so, would the Corps, or any other agency, really be interested in forcing that homeowner to move?
At the Corps’ presentation about its draft of the Southwest Louisiana Coastal Study, Hunter expressed concerns about how and when the owners of the 400 lowest-lying homes would be notified of their status. He later told Lagniappe, “I’m almost offended that people’s homes have already been put on a list and the Corps refuses to publish it.”
Hunter is concerned that some homes that were put on the short list may have flooded recently for reasons that have nothing to do with coastal erosion. He mentions the combination of unusually heavy rains and inadequate local drainage as a common culprit in area flooding.
Hunter concedes that it’s “a valiant effort” to try to remedy the problems of national flood insurance. But he’s concerned that “we never heard about this two or three years ago” from the Corps. “I wish I knew where this new mentality came from.”
In comments to Lagniappe, Andrew MacInnes, the head planner of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Southwest Louisiana Coastal Study, noted that the 400 structures presently in the involuntary category constitute less than eight percent of all the structures in the Calcasieu coastal area.
‘We Live In The Land Of Water’
In spite of the high emotions, some felt that in the final analysis, the question of eminent domain was not an over-riding point in a plan that is still very much in its early stages. It’s not yet certain that the final plan will call for the exercise of eminent domain. (We’ll see later in this story just how many hoops the study will have to go through before it becomes a final plan with the power of law behind it.) And even if eminent domain is exercised at some point, that point may be far in the future.
What concerns one local coastal activist more than imminent domain is what she sees as a lack of ideas about the controlling of water surge in the Corps’ tentative plan. Carolyn Woosley maintains that the report as it is offers only “non-structural solutions” for the problems of water surge along the Calcasieu River and Lake Charles.
MacInnes doesn’t dispute the notion that the Corps is taking a “non-structural” approach to storm damage risk reduction. In addition to elevation of structures, non-structural measures include the building of a berm around a structure as well as “dry-flood-proofing” of structures. Dry-flood-proofing involves the construction of a barrier a few feet high around the outside of the structure. These barriers are made of flood-resistant materials, such as bricks and mortar. Dry flood-proofing also involves such measures as raising outlets and plumbing.
Woosley isn’t opposed to the voluntary house elevations proposed in the draft. “You’re going to have to do that,” she says. “We live in the land of water.” If water surges near your home, it makes sense to keep your home high.
But Woosley emphasizes that the Corps refers to the Lake Charles ship channel as “Hurricane Highway.” And she also emphasizes that this Hurricane Highway comes to its end in Lake Charles. That means that any storm surge that comes up the Lake Charles ship channel will eventually wind up in the city of Lake Charles.
Woosley thinks the Corps is, at present, overlooking the important possibility of using large structures to slow down storm surge in the ship channel. One option would be a series of porous gates that could be placed in the ship channel. A single gate could drop the level of the storm surge by as much as two feet.
It’s important to keep in mind that such gates would only be deployed when the ship channel had already been closed in anticipation of a big storm or water surge. Thus, they would not interfere with commerce in any way. Woosley calls the set-up a win-win situation.
Depending on how the comments go, the Corps may eventually come around to Woosley’s way of thinking. But MacInnes is quick to note that the Corps earlier changed the focus of its study from “flood protection” to “risk reduction.”
“We’re trying to reduce the exposure people face,” says MacInnes. But, he adds, “there’s always going to be a risk … People need to understand that given the right circumstances, there will be damage … You’ll never be able to eliminate the risk of flooding. There will always be a larger storm.”
‘We Need To Give Water A Place To Go’
In terms of the larger picture, Woosley wonders whether Lake Charles’ burgeoning development, much of which is concerned with housing communities on or near water, is taking into account what could happen if the area experienced even bigger water surges than those that came with Rita and Gustav. “Are we considering urban floodways in our planning?” she asks. “Are we building in harm’s way? We need to give water a place to go.”
If no one gives water a place to go, it simply goes to the lowest point available to it. “Water wins,” says Woosley.
Of course, the Corps study concerns only areas that are in or near known coastal floodways. It is intended to provide what MacInnes calls “flood plain management,” and could effect the rules about building, land use and zoning — but only in or near coastal floodways. The plan has no control over construction projects in the interior areas of Lake Charles.
‘We Need To Dialogue’
In its present form, The Southwest Louisiana Coastal Study provides for more than $2 billion in funds for two main categories:
— coastal ecosystem restoration, and
— coastal storm damage risk reduction.
Given the controversy about structures in the floodways, MacInnes wants to be sure the public is aware of just how much the plan is set to do for restoration of coastal ecosystems. It offers a huge restoration plan for which $1.2 billion is set aside at present. The plan would involve the rebuilding of marsh plants and other parts of marshes; chenier reforestation; and related measures.
Those who are concerned about the plan for whatever reason should be aware that what we have now is only an early version. The plan will change before it becomes a done deal. “Nothing is written in stone,” says Woosley. “It’s tentative.”
MacInnes concurs. “It is a draft report.”
Those who miss the official May 4 comment deadline should not panic. “There’s always time for people to call the Corps and keep talking,” says Woosley, who thinks that in the post-May 4 stage, it will be most important for area leaders to contact and talk with the Corps.
While it would be most desirable to comment by the May 4 date, everyone should feel free to try to communicate with representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers, some of whom can be very receptive to local concerns. Residents shouldn’t feel they’re doomed to follow the mandates of what is, after all, a preliminary proposal.
MacInnes says the Corps hopes to have a final draft of the plan — a Chief’s Report — completed by March, 2016. This plan will also have a comment period.
Once the final plan is signed off on by the Corps, it will be submitted to Congress, which has the ultimate say-so on the matter. Congress could approve the plan quickly or sit on it for years. They could approve the plan as it is or make major changes to it. “We’re operating under their timetable,” says MacInnes.
More than one person is wondering why the Lake Charles presentation of the plan drew only 20 citizens, while 300 came to the presentation in sparsely populated Cameron. Is Lake Charles developing a sense of complacency that is remarkably different from the acute awareness of storm-battered Cameron?
How do you get people both informed about and interested in a coastal study? How do you get people who feel they don’t live anywhere near a floodway to consider the possibility that if a storm surge is big enough, their homes could suffer extreme damage? How do you persuade citizens to familiarize themselves with the plan and express their concerns about it to the Army Corps of Engineers?
“It’s an extremely important issue and almost no one is paying attention to it,” says Woosley.