Cain Burdeau / The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS -- The Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that it was scrapping its plans to build a $1 billion levee system to protect areas between the Mississippi River and Bayou Lafourche against hurricane flooding coming up the Barataria estuary southwest of New Orleans.
The corps said it was nixing its detailed $10 million feasibility study for the Donaldsonville-to-Gulf of Mexico project because it could not find a way to build the levee system at a cost that was worth it.
The project, approved by Congress in 1998, technically is still alive because it has not been de-authorized by Congress. But completing a feasibility study is a key step before a project of this scale can proceed.
Local officials were disappointed by the corps' decision.
"They love to study things, but they don't implement," said Tim Kerner, the mayor of Jean Lafitte, a fishing town that hoped to see the levee system built so it could be better protected against flooding. His town is often flooded by hurricanes.
Kerner said his hope now rests with new levees being built with money that the state is expected to get in coming years from increased offshore oil and gas royalties and other sources, such as money BP PLC is expected to pay for damage caused by its 2010 oil spill.
"I got confidence that local government will save us and not let us drown like the Corps of Engineers," the mayor said.
The corps said it could not find an economically feasible way to build levees or raise enough homes to give parts of nine parishes protection against a storm with a 1 percent chance of occurring a year, also known as 100-year protection.
The project was supposed to provide additional protection for parts of Ascension, Assumption, Jefferson, Lafourche, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. James, St. John the Baptist and St. Charles.
Garret Graves, a top coastal aide to Gov. Bobby Jindal, said the corps' decision was a disappointment.
"To suggest that there is not a federal interest in improving protection in this region is frustrating," Graves said. "Lafitte, St. Charles, Lafourche and many other communities deserve better from their government."
Denise Reed, a coastal scientist at the University of New Orleans, said the levee system's costs escalated after Hurricane Katrina when the corps began demanding higher standards in its levee designs.
"These things are expensive," Reed said.
The corps raised its engineering standards for levees after floodwalls and levees that it built around New Orleans failed catastrophically when they were assaulted by Katrina, leading to the flooding of more than 80 percent of New Orleans and widespread devastation in surrounding areas.
Instead of big levee systems, Reed said engineers may need to consider more targeted levees -- known as "ring levees" -- that encircle towns in need of flood protection.
Officials initially envisioned the Donaldsonville-to-the-Gulf system protecting 126,000 structures. But after levee improvements were undertaken following Katrina around parts of the West Bank of New Orleans, the Donaldsonville-to-the-Gulf levee system was expected to protect about 36,000 structures. The corps said in a report that was a major factor in making the project less appealing.
The area that was supposed to benefit from the levee system has repeatedly been flooded by heavy rains and hurricanes. The corps says the area was flooded in 1959, 1980, 1989 and 1991 and also by Hurricane Juan in 1985. It has been declared a federal disaster area three times since 1985, the corps said.
Lower Vacherie, Chackbay, Des Allemands, Raceland, Willowdale, Crown Point and Lafitte were among the towns hoping to get protected under the plan. The system would have protected U.S. Highway 90 too, a main route between New Orleans and Houma.