St. Mary Parish eyes alternative evacuation route

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St. Mary Parish is seeking to promote an alternative evacuation route from U.S. Highway 90 to Interstate 10.

The functional route, if paved, would connect Charenton to New Iberia, allowing St. Mary residents easy travel to and from Baton Rouge, according to Duval Arthur, director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness.

The route begins off U.S. Highway 182 at Ralph Darden Memorial Parkway, which runs adjacent to Cypress Bayou Casino.

Arthur said motorists could bypass the casino, crossing over La. Highway 324, or Charenton Bridge, and on to La. Highway 87. A short jog puts drivers on Levee Road at the Atchafalaya River.

“Once you’re at the Levee Road at the river,” he said, “you’re three miles away from the interstate. The whole trip is about 35 miles once you bypass the casino.”

The evacuation route is not smooth driving, however.

First, the route from Charenton to Lake Fausse Point is 14 miles of gravel, which needs to be paved.

Second, five miles of the route are in St. Mary Parish; the remaining nine are in Iberia Parish.

The recent spate of bad weather through Carencro and Lafayette, which forced the closures of Interstate-49 and Interstate-10, highlights the need for another escape route, Arthur told the St. Mary Parish Council at last week’s council meeting.

“I really think it’s time that we look at whatever funds we can find to pave this road,” he said. “What happened the other day could happen during a sudden evacuation or a hurricane. We have had big rainfalls during hurricanes.”

The storm route would also be available to Terrebonne and Lafourche residents, the emergency preparedness director said.

Had the interstate closures occurred during a storm, the consequences would have been serious, Arthur said. “I don’t want to see that.”

Councilman Albert Foulcard said talk of the alternative evacuation route only surfaced in 2010 when U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu suggested it be listed as a state project.

“In St. Mary Parish, we don’t have a north-south exit – only an east-west because we are surrounded by water. We need another evacuation route to get out of here,” he said.

State Rep. Sam Jones, who is seeking funding for the project, said the alternative road has received little state attention.

“Believe it or not, this is the only stretch of the levee road that is not hard surfaced – other than a portion located behind the City of Patterson, but that is land-locked,” Jones said.

If the road is upgraded and listed as an official evacuation route, it would mark the second time Tri-parish residents have relied on the exit point.

“I can remember in 1964, during Hurricane Hilda’s threat to the area, that the road was used for evacuating,” Jones recalled. “In fact, I was a sign-holder, directing people from La. Highway 182.”

Jones predicts the parish will receive little buy-in from Iberia Parish leaders, who view recent rains in Lafayette and surrounding areas as an isolated incident. “They still contend they can evacuate through Lafayette,” he said. “[The project] doesn’t have a value for them.”

It is also unlikely the Federal Emergency Management Agency will fund the roadway since it only pays for existing infrastructure that has been damaged. Jones said he intends to pose the question of federal money to Landrieu, Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Jeff Landry.

The best bet for funding, he said, is through the Atchafalaya Basin District, which is slated to receive its share of oil and gas revenues in 2014. The group stands for gain up to $10 million annually in severance taxes for oil and gas produced in the Atchafalaya. The money is intended to be used for improvements to and conservation of the basin.

“Until [funds become available], we need to work it from all angles,” Jones said. “This is a project that remains on my radar.”

As residents of Carencro, La. cleanup after Mondays flooding, areas in the West of Lafayette Parish are still fighting flooding Tuesday, March 13, 2012. Trucks travel past flooded fields on Mills Street as the sun comes out. (AP Photo/The Advertiser, P.C. Piazza)