Parish Councilman: Houma Canal should take priority
By Robert ZulloSenior Staff Writer, The Courier
Published: Friday, February 27, 2009 at 2:23 p.m. Last Modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 at 2:24 p.m.
HOUMA — From state-spanning levees to new judicial complexes, ideas on how to spend more than $120 million in federal hurricane-recovery money Terrebonne could receive have ranged far and wide.
But for first-year Councilman Kevin Voisin, one glaring deficiency in the parish’s flood protection demands top priority.
“Shame on us if we don’t do something about the Houma Navigation Canal,” Voisin said. “This is the problem we’ve stuck our heads in the sand (about) for 30 years.”
With about $67 million in federal Community Development Block Grants promised to Terrebonne and another $55 million potentially to follow, local officials are drawing up a list of priority projects to submit to the state for approval. Two meetings have been held to gather public input on how the money should be spent, with a third planned but not yet scheduled. No firm timetable has been set on when the list will be submitted to the state.
During the sparsely attended second meeting, held Thursday at the Houma Municipal Auditorium, Voisin said putting a structure on the Houma Navigation Canal to block potential storm surge should top the parish’s list.
The ship channel, which connects the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway to Bayou Grand Caillou, runs from just south of Houma to below Dulac. As it stands, nothing prevents the surge from a hurricane or tropical storm to flow up the Intracoastal and into the heart of Houma. The city avoided widespread flooding during Hurricane Ike, which pushed a 9-foot surge into Terrebonne and flooded thousands of homes and businesses in bayou communities, but just barely, Voisin said. He noted that at his office at Motavatit Seafoods on Palm Street, which backs up to the Intracoastal, the water level was “centimeters” from overflowing.
“That water came from the Houma Navigation Canal,” he said.
Though he said building levees in lower Terrebonne is also crucial to protecting the parish from storms, without a lock, floodgate or some other structure to block the surge, “all you’ve decided to do is flood from the middle and not from the bottom,” Voisin noted.
A handful of residents attended Thursday’s meeting, compared with about 50 that attended the first meeting earlier this month.
Barbara Larpenter, 62, of Schriever, said the money should be used to provide basic essentials, including food and shelter, to those hit hardest by the storms.
“The thing I’m most interested in is the bayou people,” she said. “The levees should be the last thing the money’s used for.”
Terrebonne’s share of the money will be part of about $6.1 billion in disaster assistance the federal government approved for states hit by disasters in 2008. Administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the money will be distributed in phases.
Louisiana’s share of the first part of the money will be about $438 million. About 10 percent of that must be spent on “affordable rental housing.” Of that pool, $10 million is already set aside for Terrebonne.
Another $309.8 million is allocated to 43 parishes, which will select from a “menu of options” to spend the money in three categories — housing, economic development and infrastructure. Housing includes relocation, workforce rental housing and homelessness prevention, among other programs, while infrastructure means repairs for damages caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike as well as “hardening existing structures or infrastructure to prevent damage from future disasters.”
Jennifer Gerbasi, a senior planner in the parish Planning Department, said Terrebonne will compile a list of projects to submit to the state. Each project must be approved by HUD.
Residents’ suggestions have ranged from creating a levee “from Mississippi to Texas” to traffic projects and coastal restoration.
But the potential uses are limited by law, Gerbasi said.
“It’s very restrictive,” she said. “We have to go through all the federal hoops.”
However, the local plan will first be put to a public hearing and will be subject to the Parish Council’s approval, she noted.
Send written suggestions to the Terrebonne Parish Planning Department, 8026 Main St., Suite 402, Houma, LA 70360.
Go to www.tpcg.org to view the guidelines for how the federal money is intended to be spent.