BRAITHWAITE, La. -- An Eyewitness Investigation in March revealed that a critical Plaquemines Parish levee project had been halted at the worst possible time -- after an existing 8-foot levee had been knocked down to make way for a broader, higher 12-foot barrier.
With hurricane season now underway, a return visit to the vulnerable east bank town of Braithwaite shows that not much has changed. Several sections of the flood protection levee remain near ground level as the parish scrambles to replace the contractor it kicked off the job.
The delays have residents feeling vulnerable and frustrated. After being swamped by a 12-foot storm surge during Hurricane Isaac in 2012, only a handful of people have completed repairs and moved back into the Braithwaite Park subdivision.
“Everybody wants to come home,” resident Jessie Shaffer said. “We have 4,000 people who want to come home but they can’t because of the levee situation. It’s deplorable.”
Jill Baumy and her husband Randy are slowly rebuilding their Braithwaite home. But they are hesitant to finish without levee protection.
“We’ve been working slow hoping that we’ll get to 12-foot levees where we can complete our home,” Jill Baumy said. “But we hate to keep investing money into it knowing that we have smaller levees than what we started off with. It’s very upsetting to know we had 8-foot levees and now they’re below that.”
The gaps are a result of the old 8-foot levee being degraded – knocked down – in order to widen the base and make way for the higher levee.
But a dispute between the original contractor, Integrated Pro Services of Belle Chasse, and its subcontractors led the parish to pull the plug on the work.
John Hess, owner of Integrated Pro Services, portrayed his company as the victim in the dispute, saying his company was not paid for the work it completed. He said he has hired an attorney to press his claims in court.
Wherever the fault lies, Parish President Billy Nungesser acknowledged that the setback was untimely and unfortunate.
“I understand there were some problems whether the money was actually spent for material and labor and other things on the levee that should have been,” Nungesser said. “I’m sure that’s going to be a battle in the courtrooms between the bonding company and the contractor.”
To finish the work, the parish decided to turn over the job to the bonding company, which acts like an insurance company to guarantee the completion of the project.
Nungesser said the company is currently lining up a subcontractor to complete the work. But the delay means Braithwaite will be exposed during this hurricane season, leaving property owners holding their breath and crossing their fingers.
“We are praying that we’re not subjected to a storm this season.” Baumy said. “That’s all we can do. It’s in the hands of God.”
Nungesser said stop-gap measures are already underway, including using parish work crews to shore up the levee to a minimum of 5 feet and adding rocks on the backside of the levee for reinforcement. He also said he signed several contingency contracts in case of emergency. In case of a storm, those contractors would help parish workers apply sandbags and protective plastic to shore up any weaknesses.
“As we did for Gustav and Ike, when we see a storm surge that’s a couple feet or a foot over that levee, we have tubes, sandbags and equipment,” Nungesser said. “We will flood-fight if necessary to try to give ourselves a fighting chance.”
Even if Braithwaite survives the season without flooding, Nungesser said there could be another hurdle to cross down the road. He said the botched contract with IPS may leave the project millions of dollars short.
“The way I understand it from the different parties involved, is that there could be a $1 to $2 million gap in funding needed to finish that levee,” Nungesser said. “If that’s the case, we will have to see about getting the bonding company to cover that.”
That shortfall could mean the difference between a Braithwaite coming back strong or turning into a ghost town.
Shaffer, who was the head of the Braithwaite Park Neighborhood Association back when the neighborhood existed, is hopeful.
“If they would build up the levees where they need to be, everyone would come back. Not just one, two families. Everyone would come back.”