Zeringue: Diversions are essential to coastal restoration _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Jerome Zeringue, Executive Assistant to the Governor for Coastal Activities, speaks at the Baton Rouge Press Club about coastal issues facing Louisiana.

Two days before the start of the Atlantic hurricane season, officials from across the New Orleans metro area gathered Friday to urge residents to have an evacuation plan in place before a possible storm approaches.

Parish presidents and the leaders of local flood protection boards stepped up to a podium at the Port of New Orleans building to discuss their hurricane preparedness steps and to convey a similar message: that each storm is different and it only takes one to wreck havoc.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasters have predicted a near-normal or below-normal Atlantic hurricane season. Their projections see a 70 percent chance of eight to 13 named storms, three to six of which could become hurricanes. One or two of those hurricanes could develop into a Category 3, 4 or 5 storm, with winds of 111 mph or higher.

The weather phenomenon called El Niño is expected to suppress the storms’ number and intensity.

Last year was an unusually quiet storm season, but forecasters pointed out that even a quiet season can produce a highly destructive hurricane, such as Betsy in 1965 or Andrew in 1992.

New technology and recent improvements to local storm protection systems should better equip the area to deal with a potential hurricane, several officials said. This year, NOAA forecasters will be releasing potential storm-surge flooding maps about 48 hours before a tropical storm is predicted to make landfall.

“It’s amazing the diagnostic tools that are going to be improved on and utilized this season,” said Jerome Zeringue, chairman of the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

He pointed to “the reduction of the (forecast margin of error) cone, their ability to better predict landfall and help guide the decisions that we’re going to have to make in anticipation of the storm. We look forward to closely working with those guys but also utilizing some improvements in technology and protective measures.”

Zeringue noted that all or part of several nearby parishes lie outside storm protection systems — a point echoed by some elected officials, including St. John the Baptist Parish President Natalie Robottom.

“We’d be remiss if we didn’t look in terms of the big picture and how we need to address flood protection in other areas outside of this region,” Zeringue said.

Despite the improved technology, several leaders stressed that the key for residents is having an evacuation plan ready, then acting swiftly if officials say it’s time to evacuate.

“Our plans can be great, our plans can have everything in place, but if our citizens don’t heed our warning and listen to us, our plans are no good,” said Jerry Sneed, New Orleans’ deputy mayor for public safety.

Sneed said recent upgrades to the area’s $14.5 billion hurricane protection system make New Orleans “better protected than it’s ever been before.” Still, he stressed that the system is a “risk-reduction system, not a risk-avoidance system.”

New Orleans’ storm protection system, which was accredited earlier this year by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has undergone billions of dollars worth of work since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The intricate system of levees, floodwalls, gates and pumps was designed by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect against a so-called 100-year storm, or one that has a 1 percent chance of making landfall in a given year.

Elsewhere across the region, work began this year on a projected $500 million flood protection system on St. Charles Parish’s west bank, an effort discussed for decades. The system is designed to protect 25,300 households and businesses as well as U.S. 90, a critical evacuation route for many south Louisiana residents.

Last year, the Corps — acting despite objections from officials in Ascension and St. James parishes — reaffirmed its intention to recommend an 18-mile levee alignment for its proposed $881 million West Shore Lake Pontchartrain flood protection project, which will track the north side of Interstate 10 west from the Bonnet Carré Spillway and connect with the Mississippi River levee west of Garyville.

The project was first authorized by Congress in 1971. The current plan was selected from among three potential routes. Many River Parishes residents urged the federal engineers to consider adding an additional 10-mile stretch of levees to help protect areas in St. James and Ascension parishes. The Corps has balked at that idea, saying it would encompass more acres of wetlands and require additional environmental structures and maintenance, potentially increasing the risk of levee failure as well as raising long-term costs.

Steve Wilson, president of the Pontchartrain Levee District, which signed on as the project’s sponsor in 2008, said the Corps’ Civil Works Review Board will consider the plan July 10. If it receives the board’s approval, the next step is asking Congress to include it in the budget.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.