St. Mary Parish readies for storms from every side

Tuesday, June 7
June 7, 2011
Economic life of LA1 businesses in limbo
June 9, 2011
Tuesday, June 7
June 7, 2011
Economic life of LA1 businesses in limbo
June 9, 2011

Despite backwater threatening from the Atchafalaya River, St. Mary Parish leaders say the region is prepared for the 2011 hurricane season.

Early storms are not common, but not an anomaly, either. Memories of Hurricane Audrey, the first major storm of the 1957 Atlantic storm season, still lingers among longtime residents. The storm formed June 25, 1957 and dissipated four days later, causing in excess of $147 million in damage across western Louisiana and Texas. Today, that damage figure would translate into $1 billion.

“Are we ready now? Yes, we are,” said Duval Arthur, director of the parish’s emergency preparedness department.

Arthur said the parish is awaiting word from the Federal Emergency Management Agency whether the sunken barge in Bayou Chene can stay intact until the hurricane season ends. The barge control system was put in place in anticipation from rising backwater caused by the opening of bays in the Morganza Spillway. The move was necessitated by the rising Mississippi River. Opening the Morganza, Atchafalaya and Bonnet Carre spillways has since relieved the crest levels of the Mississippi. However, areas along both the Morganza and Atchafalaya suffered flooding.

At one point, St. Mary officials feared record amounts of water in the parish. Leaders credit the sinking of the barge, among other preventive measures, with holding the water at bay.

“I know that, in lieu of the 9 feet of flood water we presently have, this brings up many questions about our ability to withstand a Category 4 or 5 hurricane,” Arthur said. “However, considering our levees, we believe we have about 12 to 15 feet of [leeway] to take care of any storm surges.”

The parish also has reinforcement measures in place, again courtesy of recent activity to hold back floodwaters from Morganza, which should keep inland communities dry, according to the director.

“In the Franklin area, we have Hesco baskets and sheet piling in place along the Franklin and Hanson canals and Yellow Bayou,” Arthur said. “That should prevent any storm surge flooding in Centerville, Pecan Acres, Eastwood and Hazelwood.

“We plan on keeping those in place until after hurricane season,” he added.

In the event of a mandatory evacuation, Arthur said Rapides Parish will house St. Mary residents at the Rapides Coliseum. “We have buses in place to transport people, and Red Cross will be on standby to operate that facility,” he said.

The parish’s animal control will safeguard pets that are evacuated.

Meanwhile, Morgan City Mayor Tim Matte said the city is transitioning from preparing for flooding to readying for hurricane season.

Hesco baskets and sand bags on Justa Street, in the Auburn Subdivision and along the Siracusa levees will remain in place until hurricane season ends or levees are improved.

Matte is carefully tracking preparations in anticipation of a storm, since Morgan City has yet to be fully reimbursed for restoration work in the wake of hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008. FEMA still owes the city $694,000, the final amount of the $2.4 million Morgan City spent on repairs.

Morgan City and Franklin suffered damage in both storms. Neighboring Terrebonne Parish took the direct hit from Gustav, while Ike brushed St. Mary Parish’s coast. As Ike glanced by, many Franklin area homeowners were inundated with floodwater.

In all, more than 1,000 homes were flooded as the storm passed the Franklin Canal. Flood water meandered as far east as Garden City.

The most damaging storm to St. Mary remains Hurricane Andrew, which struck in August 1992.

Matte said people dispute to this day the storm’s strength when it hit Morgan City. “Some say it was a Cat 4, some say a Cat 5.”

“It was actually a Category 3 storm when it hit,” he said. “Regardless, I say it wasn’t anything nice, no matter how you look at it.

“That was a wind storm, not a water one. No one was unscathed from our east side to our west side. Public buildings, homes, trailers … nothing was left undamaged. Everyone got some damage.”

Matte said the parish experienced millions of dollars worth of damage.

Because it was a wind storm, however, FEMA did provide those without adequate insurance aid. “In the wake of [Hurricane] Katrina, there were so many questions of the wind and water damage question,” he said.

Were a storm to hit St. Mary Parish this year, most officials feel the parish is protected, at least somewhat.

Barring any wind concerns, former Morgan City Mayor Cedric LaFleur said the barge control system’s ability to keep up with backwater could keep more neighborhoods dry.

Backwater was a big issue for Morgan City in 1957 when Hurricane Audrey struck Cameron Parish in 1957.

“The storm was way to our west. However, it was pushing so much water that we were all volunteering at the seawall to keep the river water from gushing in,” he said.

“We had a 10-foot levee, but we did not have any floodgates then,” LaFleur continued. “We used railroad cross ties, and it wasn’t easy.”

Despite the massive effort, water crept in and flooded Front Street.

Morgan City had a similar experience with Hurricane Audrey in ’57, according to retired Morgan City port commissioner Larry Doiron.

“Morgan City is 18 miles from the Gulf,” he said. “As far away as we are from Cameron, Audrey was building up incredible amounts of wind and pushing a wide tide up the river.

“As fast as we were putting sandbags down, they’d disappear. [Water] was moving in that quick,” he recalled.

Although backwater flooding concerns were not an issue in 1957, the former commissioner said the Atchafalaya River was deeper then compared to today.

“The siltation is killing us,” he said. “Water can get to the Gulf any way it wants to, as nature calls for it to do, because it is getting bottlenecked from all the silt.”

If the barge control system was not in place, Doiron predicts the city would be hit hard.

“If I said it one time, I’ll say it 100 times: If we get a hurricane right now, it’s going to be awful; particularly if the barge doesn’t continue to do the great job it is doing now,” he said. “We need a permanent structure there. Frankly, we need a levee built 14 miles below Morgan City as well.”