Protection on the way for Lafourche’s ‘economic engine’

Tuesday, Nov. 16
November 16, 2010
Neighbors angered over blight
November 18, 2010
Tuesday, Nov. 16
November 16, 2010
Neighbors angered over blight
November 18, 2010

In the past three years, Lafourche Parish faced two hurricanes and a seemingly endless encroachment of crude oil gushing from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico. The body of water that drives the southern Louisiana economy also harbors disaster that can cripple the welfare of its residents. Ying and Yang.

As with the Chinese rendering that symbolizes the presence of good and evil, positive and negative and vice-versa, tangible benefits related to the heartache delivered by the BP oil spill and hurricanes Gustav and Ike will soon be recognized, according to Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolph.

“You go through [a disaster] and you continue for some time saying ‘woe is me,’ and you realize that there eventually is an end to it, whether it is short-term or long-term and that is when you begin to see the upside of it,” Randolph said. “And certainly, there will be an upside.”

Port Fourchon will be the primary beneficiary of fines stemming from the oil spill. Through the money BP is required to appropriate to the affected areas, the eastern and western flanks of the parish’s “economic engine” will be fortified through the Caminada Headland Restoration and West Belle Pass Barrier Headland Restoration projects.

The Caminada Headland project has been in the works since at least 1990, and because it is a part of Fourchon Beach, the most heavily oil-impacted area in Lafourche, the parish will finally have the means to finance the restoration.

“[Caminada Headland] will not only build up a sand barrier, but it will also revitalize marshes in that area, which increases the ability to hold back waves and storm surge if you do have some solid land in the way,” Randolph said.

“That’s a very expensive project,” she continued. “It’s probably between $300 million and $400 million, but it not only protects us in storm surges, it also has the added benefit of being a major protection area for Port Fourchon, which is our economic engine.”

In the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, a trust fund was created by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90), which will dole out up to $1 billion to the five affected states. Oil companies have been contributing to the fund for 20 years.

“We could potentially use some of that money for some of these projects too, so we don’t have to wait for the litigation process,” Randolph said.

OPA 90 also requires the liable party to pay $1,000 per barrel of leaked oil. Some estimates have the Deepwater Horizon explosion leading to the discharge of 4.9 million barrels of oil.

The Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process will determine how much in fines BP is required to pay to restore damaged areas, but this process can take years to complete.

The West Belle Pass Headline project will cost $42.2 million, according to a Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force document.

“[U.S. Department of] Commerce Secretary [Gary] Locke came down in the August, September time frame and brought $31 million for the West Bell Pass project, which is the western side of Port Fourchon, and that will do the same thing,” Randolph said. “It will not only shore up that area, but will also build some wetlands, which is essential.”

In addition to solidifying the flanks of Port Fourchon, Randolph said the parish is working on two other parish-wide projects n freshwater diversion to Bayou Lafourche and a pipeline extending from Plaquemines Parish that will transport sediment from the Mississippi River to the Barataria Basin in a manner similar to what happened before levees were built to prevent flooding.

“What nature used to do when it flooded the Mississippi River, it would bring that sediment into the Barataria Basin,” Randolph said. “Frankly, the pipeline will bring that sediment in an automatic way rather than a natural way and recreate some ridges and some land bridges that existed there before.”

The parish also continues to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds in the wake of the 2008 hurricanes. Randolph said the parish qualified for $36 million in federal monies, which will be used on pump stations and bulkhead barriers.

“We’ve assigned about six, maybe seven projects that will be funded with that federal money,” Randolph said. “We’re in the process right now of awarding some of those projects in order to ensure that we will be ready to go in January.”

The Jesse Duphrene pump station is among the several projects planned for 2011. Originally, the parish budgeted $1.2 million for the Gheens pump station, but FEMA stepped up and offered to spend $1.5 million on the project, freeing up the original funds for other projects.

Most infrastructure improvements are designed for one thing n protection in case of another hurricane.

“We are prepared for a storm,” Randolph said. “Our building codes are encouraging better structures that can withstand the storms. We still will insist that people will evacuate and assist them evacuating. It’s still just material things, and as long as people aren’t dying, we can make this all work without a problem.”

In other positive news, the parish president said property tax assessments are projected to be much higher than originally thought.

Lafourche Assessor Michael Martin echoed that statement, and said he expects a $7 million increase from the $81 million the parish collected last year. He went on to say it could be as much as a $9 million increase.

“The vast percentage of it, probably in the 80 to 85 percent of that is watercraft,” Martin said. “That’s the scary part because for 2011, if the moratorium continues and the permits are not issued, we are going to lose a lot of watercraft and that’s the vast percentage of my tax base.”

Watercraft industries, which Martin estimated makes up 30 percent of his tax base, includes any oil-and-gas related, non gas-powered vessels. Fishing vessels are not included.

“It really will be a better 2011 than we had anticipated,” Randolph said. “We’re a little bit concerned about 2012, but we’ll know better about mid-year next year what will happen with that.”

On a personal level, Randolph deals with the ying and the yang of her role on a daily basis.

She spent the past seven months enduring the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, which included debating with BP officials about the Vessels of Opportunity program and speaking out against the truncated-yet-continuing presidentially imposed ban on offshore drilling.

She had the ear of President Obama, and is recognized nationally as being one of the voices of south Louisiana during the oil spill.

“Fortunately – or unfortunately – I’ve met with two presidents because of the disasters we’ve had. I’d rather them invite me to the Christmas Party rather than having them come down here because that always represents a disaster, but it’s been an opportunity.

“To be able to say to President Obama the day after he issues a moratorium, ‘I wish you’d reconsider.’ He anticipated that I would make some small talk, some social talk. Instead, I immediately jumped into that. His response was, ‘I knew I’d get some pushback on that down here.’ And I never thought I’d respond to a president this way, but I said, ‘You think?’”

But despite the fact that she has worked hard to protect and enhance her constituents’ welfare, not everybody at home is pleased with the job she has done.

At parish council meetings, the citizens, who speculate on her corruption bi-weekly, have venomously insulted her on multiple occasions. Even the councilmen sometimes portray a distrustful attitude towards the parish leader.

“There are days, where you kind of look up at the ceiling and say ‘What the heck am I doing here?’ because it gets so frustrating,” Randolph said. “With all these people nipping at your heels, there are days that you wonder what you could be doing in the private sector where you don’t have 95,000 people to please.”

All-in-all, however, she says the good outweighs the bad.

“It’s unusual and that’s why I enjoy it so much,” she said. “I know that surprises some people. In this position, you have one-on-one contact with constituents who have their individual problems, frequent contact with councilmen who are dealing constituents who have their concerns, so you can impact their lives directly.

“You don’t have to wait until the federal budget comes out and all these other things, you can make these choices to help them right here on the ground, and that makes it very rewarding because you know that you’ve helped people who had a problem and their life is better because of it.

“Things look great. We will not have a hurricane, just because God is a good God, and he’s going to give us a year off.”