Hearings - Testimony
 
Field Hearing
Oversee the Ongoing Rebuilding and Restoration Efforts of Hurricane and Flood Protection by the Army Corps of Engineers
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
 
Honorable William Clifford Smith
Member, Mississippi River Commission, Civil Engineer, Houma, Louisiana

Good morning Senators and staff. Thank you for holding this hearing.

When I read the official notice for this meeting, I understand that its purpose is to oversee the ongoing rebuilding and restoration efforts of hurricane and flood protection by the Corps of Engineers in preparation for the 2006 hurricane season in Louisiana and to examine taking a comprehensive approach to hurricane protection. Since you are overseeing the “ongoing rebuilding and restoration efforts of hurricane and flood protection by the Corps of Engineers in preparation for next years hurricane season in Louisiana”, I am here to respectfully inform you that there is no effort being expended to protect the approximately 150,000 citizens and the nation’s economic engine in Terrebonne Parish, which suffered greater flooding from Hurricane Rita than it has ever suffered in my lifetime of seventy-one years. Over ten thousand homes were flooded by Rita, which made landfall approximately one hundred and fifty miles to the west of Terrebonne.

I am very pleased that you want to investigate a “comprehensive approach to hurricane protection”, but I am frustrated and confused. I am here to tell you that a comprehensive approach is not only desirable, but is necessary for the survival of our coast and its economy, communities and culture. A pro-active approach to avoiding the type of destruction and devastation experienced through Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is long overdue.

We, in Terrebonne Parish, have been working on just such an approach for our region for over fifteen years (that’s right….FIFTEEN YEARS). The obsolete and frustrating authorization, appropriating and N.E.P.A. permitting processes that have evolved in this country, and the timing issues that are associated with them, present almost insurmountable barriers to resolving the complicated problems associated with implementing any comprehensive hurricane protection system. Fifteen years ago, in conjunction with the State of Louisiana and the Corps of Engineers, we began to develop a hurricane protection system for Terrebonne Parish. The state, our local government, and the Corps of Engineers, completed a feasibility study in 2002 which cost over $10 million, of which 50% was paid by local interests. It was approved by the Chief of Engineers. This project, known as the Morganza to the Gulf Hurricane Protection Plan, has a positive cost benefit ratio, but has been waiting for Congressional authorization since 2002. As you all know, no Water Resource Development Act (W.R.D.A.) has passed the Congress since 2000, and this project has been in every proposed version since that time.

The local citizens have been taxing themselves for the last four years to raise the local share with the state in the event that a federal project is ever authorized and funded. As a matter of fact, with local and state funds and no federal help we have just begun building a $17 million segment of the project in accordance with the feasibility report and with the hope of ultimately receiving credit on a federal project. This project will provide Category 3 protection for approximately 200,000 citizens in Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes and approximately $8 billion of public and private infrastructure, if and when it is ever built…. and if we don’t completely wash away before we get assistance from the federal government.

During the past 6 months, when someone asks me how I am doing, I tell them I am confused. I know that I am blessed because the greatest natural disaster to hit America, Hurricane Katrina, was to the east of where I live. Even though the wind blew out of the north at 100 MPH, we received minimal damage and inconvenience, being without electricity for only five days. Within 30 days, Hurricane Rita hit southwest Louisiana, and the wind blew 40 MPH out of the south; we had more water in my parish than I have ever seen. Thankfully, my home and my business and investments had minimal damage so, again, I was blessed.

Because we live so close to the disaster areas, especially the oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico that were devastated by Katrina and Rita, my community’s economy is the most prosperous that I have ever observed. A year ago, I would have told you that Terrebonne Parish was benefiting from an economic boom second to none. Now, the economy is a spike on what we had. We have less than a 4% unemployment rate, a 10% increase in population over the last 10 years, and at least a 15% increase in population over the last six months. We have a sales tax increase of over 15% per year, with over a 30% increase being reflected over the last six months. All of this is because the oil and gas companies are doing everything possible to get back in production because of the demand and prices for their products. We are blessed to be benefiting from circumstances not under our control.

However, as a Civil Engineer and Land Surveyor who has lived near the water in this coastal area all my life, I am depressed because I see my coastline washing away into the Gulf of Mexico. I believe if a storm of 100 MPH wind hit my community from the south, there could be 10’ to 15’ of water in the vicinity of Houma. During my lifetime, over 400,000 acres of land have been lost between my community and the Gulf of Mexico. The buffer that protected my community from hurricanes for over 200 years is eroding. One of the most productive estuary areas in the world is being lost as I speak to you. It has been documented that 25 square miles of coastal Louisiana is being destroyed by erosion, subsidence, or sea level rise each and every year. The estimate is that we lost 100 to 125 square miles of the Louisiana coast during Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. This depresses me, and it should depress you.

I tell everyone in my community to go look at Chalmette and St. Bernard Parish. Chalmette is about 20 miles further inland from the Gulf than my community of Houma, as shown on the attached sketch. Chalmette had two levees protecting them, and they both were overtopped. In my community, we have none. I believe it is just a matter of time before my community experiences the fate of Chalmette and St. Bernard Parish.

I also am depressed when I hear all the effort and discussion in the New Orleans area and vicinity concerning protection from a Category 3 or Category 5 hurricane. Where I live, we have a Category 0 protection. Over the years my parish used local funds to construct drainage and tidal protection levees and pump stations to handle our deteriorating drainage problems caused by coastal erosion and 60 inches of annual rainfall. The levees protected areas that were flooded many times by previous hurricanes and tropical events, but they were destroyed by Rita. Again, using local funds, we are frantically attempting to rebuild some of our levees and drainage systems before the June 1st hurricane season. It is depressing because what we are building is not hurricane protection.

As drastically as we need this project and as horrible as the hurricanes were last year, one good thing that resulted is the recognition that the wetlands and estuary area are, in and of themselves, significant hurricane protection systems that must be restored and rebuilt. This is surely the case, particularly in my area, because our wetlands have historically protected not only my parish but much of Lafourche, St. Charles, Jefferson, and Orleans, in addition to being the most productive estuary on earth. I believe, as a civilian member of the Mississippi River Commission, this restoration of our wetlands can be accomplished by managing the resources of the Mississippi River and its tributaries so that the fresh water, silt, and nutrients of the river can be utilized under controlled conditions to re-establish the wetlands.

The survival of our area depends upon you. Please authorize and fund the Morganza to the Gulf Hurricane Protection Project and the Louisiana Coastal Area Project for the restoration of the nation’s great coastal area.

Thank you for your time.

 

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