Critics say Nungesser didn't do enough to protect Plaquemines from flooding

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wwltv.com

Posted on October 2, 2012 at 12:10 PM

Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
Email: mperlstein@wwltv.com | Twitter: @mperlstein

BRAITHWAITE, La. -- Rushing floodwaters, rooftop rescues, mass destruction. Those were the images that Hurricane Isaac etched on the east bank of Plaquemines.

This narrow ribbon of protection is not part of the federal levee system. It's the parish's responsibility, and several officials say the parish has not done everything it could.

"We need a levee. We need a levee back here bad. We put money up for a levee,” said Don Beshel, former Plaquemines Council chairman. “I was on the council. I was the council chairman and I fought real hard to get the money for that levee, and Mr. Nungesser did not support us. He never did support that levee. He turned it down."

Beshel rode out the storm in his Braithwaite home. Surveying the damage, he says he keeps going back to a long-running battle he had with Parish President Billy Nungesser to expedite levee work.

At the heart of the issue is a $30 million project to raise the levee. The legislative history going back to 2010 shows that Nungesser refused to sign an $18 million bond issue for the project.

Council meetings included urgent pleas from citizens and council members, including Beshel.

"It's been there for a long time just sitting there,” Beshel said. “We’re in dire straits. We would like the administration to pass on it, Mr. Nungesser. Please consider signing all the documents that are needed."

In this August 2010 exchange with Councilman Burghart Turner, parish bond attorney Hugh Martin admits that delays by Nungesser cost the parish time and money.

"Did the council do what it needed to do to move forward? And did the parish president do what he needed to do as in signing it in order for us to move forward?” Turner asked.

Martin responded, "On the sale date, the parish president said this was not a project that was ready to go forward. He did not sign."

Turner: "The bottom line is, we now we have an increased cost?

Martin: "Yes."

Nungesser flatly denies that his actions stalled the levee work.

"I can look everybody in the eye and say I did everything physically possible I could in a timely manner,” Nungesser said. “That's absolutely not true. I take offense to anybody who thinks I delayed a project."

As for the bond counsel's opinion, Nungesser had this to say.

"Hugh Martin doesn't like me because I don't use him,” Nungesser said. “It's his word against mine. It's not true."

Nungesser said he didn't free up the money because engineering wasn't ready.

"They were misled about when that levee could start. Everything moved in a timely manner," he said.

But Nungesser himself, in one 2010 cable access interview, seemed to question the project.

"Is it doable?” he said then. “Will it sustain storm surge? And what is the cost of it? Because you don't bond out half a project."

Ultimately Nungesser did approve the money, but he admits that the levee-raising efforts are still at least two years from completion.

Many residents in this flooded and devastated community point out that there were ongoing and piecemeal flood protection projects going on at the time of Isaac, many of those degrading, or lowering, the back levee in order to build it back up.

But Nungesser said an emergency plan helped cover up those soft spots.

"We covered them with plastic,” Nungesser said. “And if you go look at them, those levees covered with plastic held up fine."

Now Nungesser, as well as his critics, agree that they are facing a more urgent issue in light of Isaac's devastation. Will Braithwaite be able to come back?

"My wife wants to go. I would like to stay, but if it continues to happen and I can pay my way out, I will,” Beshel said. “I will leave."

During President Barack Obama's visit after Isaac, Nungesser said he made a direct pitch for federalizing the east bank levee.

He also said decisions made during the next three months will be critical to Braithwaite's very survival.

 

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