BRAITHWAITE, La. - The Plaquemines Parish town of Braithwaite was at risk of becoming a ghost town after Hurricane Isaac’s storm surge inundated the low-lying east bank community with 12 feet of water.
But more than a year after the devastating flood, some homeowners began trickling back when they saw progress on a long-neglected project to raise a patchwork eight-foot parish levee to 12 feet.
Clyde Jones (pictured below) is one of those residents. He said it took a year of hard work, a lot of tears and $150,000 to get back into his home. Jones’ re-investment, along with that of dozens of other Braithwaite property owners, is now in jeopardy.
We don’t know anything, we're in the dark
About three weeks ago, work on the back levee project suddenly stopped when the contractor, Integrated Pro Services of Belle Chasse, abandoned the job. The heavy equipment that was being used on the job has been parked on the side of Highway 39 ever since.
Storm-weary residents are furious.
“We don’t know anything. We’re like mushrooms now. Keep us in the dark and feed us horse manure,” Jones said. “The only way we knew the job was shut down was when we saw the equipment pulled out of the job.”
While residents haven’t been able to get an explanation about why the contractor walked off the job, they have been able to physically inspect the levee, which was designed to protect the community from the open marsh lapping at their backyards.
What they discovered was more bad news. The job was abandoned after several hundred feet of the levee was knocked down to barely two feet above the water-line, exposing portions of the geo-textile mats that make up the base of the levee at ground level.
More vulnerable than ever
Tearing down the levee – known as “degrading” – is a needed to expand the base of the earthen mound in order to accommodate the new higher elevation. But with the levee job suspended indefinitely,
Braithwaite is now more vulnerable to flooding than before the work started.
Jill Baumy (pictured below) is one of the Braithwaite residents who saw water rise into her attic during Isaac. Now she sees a huge gap in the levee nearly directly behind her ranch-style home – and behind that, a two-foot mound of dirt separating her property from open water.
“Very frustrating. I mean I could sit here and cry right now,” Baumy said. “Right, if we got a little high tide, we could flood all along the east bank. That’s sad news.”
Since Isaac, Baumy and her husband have been painstakingly
renovating their house themselves whenever they have the time and money. The colorful landscaping in their front yard masks the fact that the interior is nothing but exposed wall studs.
Now the couple is wondering whether to continue.
“We keep waiting, waiting and waiting, hoping that things are going to pick up. Then we get knocked down like this when the contractor has pulled out,” Baumy said.
Looking for answers
The levee-raising contract is the first phase of a $32-million parish-funded job designed to raise the levee to 12 feet along an 18-mile stretch of the upper east bank from the St. Bernard Parish line down to an area known as White Ditch.
Parish officials have said that the project is designed with the hopes of eventually convincing the Army Corps of Engineers to tie the homegrown levee into the federal levee system.
The project has been on the drawing board for more than a decade, but because of funding delays and other hurdles, it didn’t get off the ground after slow-moving Isaac overtopped the levee in several places.
John Hess, the owner of the Integrated Pro Services, did not return several calls for comment.
In a brief telephone interview, Parish President Billy Nungesser said he was scrambling to understand why the job was abandoned at such a critical juncture. He agreed to provide the details at a scheduled interview last week, but he cancelled the interview and has not returned several phone calls since then.
East bank Councilman Percy “P.V.” Griffin said he hasn’t been able to get many answers either.
“We’ve been trying to find out what’s going on,” Griffin said. “And to this day, I have never gotten a good excuse why they pulled off the job.”
Griffin said the administration told him that the matter is now in the hands of attorneys. He was told that the contractor was required to post a multimillion dollar performance bond, and parish attorneys are now trying to go after the bond.
But for Griffin and his constituents, there have been no answers about what happens next, especially if this protection gap isn’t plugged in time for the upcoming hurricane season.
“Whether it’s the administration’s fault, the contractor’s fault or if it’s the inspector’s fault, somebody should be held liable and accountable,” Griffin said. “This needs to be fixed.”
Griffin’s predecessor on the council, Don Beshel, characterized the situation as an emergency.
“We will get water back here,” Beshel said. “Two feet isn’t going to protect anything. There are a lot of people who rebuilt, and now they can get flooded now from just a high tide. It’s ridiculous. This is an emergency situation.”
Beshel, who rebuilt his home after Isaac and operates an east bank trailer park, has been fighting to upgrade the levee for more than a decade, finally securing funding back when he served as council president.
Now he feels blindsided.
“Two emotions. I’m hurt and I’m mad,” Beshel said. “It was hard for us to come back. It’s hard for us to stay here. But my family has been here for more than hundred years. This is my home. This is where I have my business. I want to stay in my home. I wanted to die here.”
Beshel’s wishes, and perhaps the future of the Braithwaite community, now appear to be in legitimate peril. Before Isaac, the town had about 100 households. Residents estimate that only about half have returned.
“A lot of people were spending money to get back in their homes and now those people have to stop,” he said. “There are many projects I’d like to do, but how can I continue. This may not be here tomorrow.”