Mitchell Epps kept a worn, well-thumbed-through copy of Ascension Parish’s landmark drainage plan in the back office of his house during the last few years of his life.
Created by Prescott Follett and Associates for Ascension Parish in the early 1980s, the plan was the basis upon which the old Ascension Parish Police Jury convinced voters to approve a half-cent east Ascension Parish drainage sales tax in 1984.
Stored along with decades of papers and newspaper articles, Epps’ copy of the plan was reminder to the retired engineer that one of the goals for the plan, and himself, was to see a long-deferred floodgate built at Henderson Bayou for critical flood protection in his community.
The plan was sold to the public with the help of a grass-roots group known as the Sandbaggers, which included Epps, and the sales tax was meant to pay for the plan’s vision for flood protection in east Ascension: the Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station in McElroy Swamp, the pumps in Sorrento and other major projects.
But Epps, who died in late December at 89, was among those Sandbaggers who in the early and mid-2000s hounded the east Ascension drainage board, telling members that the board had collected millions in sales tax revenue yearly but had not finished what it started, in particular that floodgate and pump station for Henderson Bayou near where Epps lived in the Galvez area.
Postumously, Epps got his long-awaited wish when drainage officials announced earlier this month that the Henderson Bayou floodgate and pump station were built. The finishing touches are being completed nearly three years after work began in September 2011. A series of construction issues delayed the project, once optimistically slated to take a year and a half.
“I know he’s very, very happy,” said Jeremy Epps, 36, his grandson, who went with Mitchell Epps to drainage meetings to argue for the floodgate.
Construction of the floodgate cost about $15.8 million. The total project, which required wetlands mitigation, as well as design, engineering and permitting, cost about $21 million, drainage officials said.
The 15-foot-high floodgate cuts across Bayou Henderson in swampland upstream of where the bayou empties into Lake Villar and the Amite River. The floodgate ties into a new 1,100-foot-long, 14-foot-high earthen levee and natural ridge line. Together, the floodgate, levee and ridge are designed to prevent backwater, which rises from the Amite when it is high, from flowing upstream into Henderson Bayou and flooding northeast Ascension.
The floodgate, which took 10,500 cubic yards of concrete to build, is anchored with 226 concrete piles and 15,000 cubic yards of dirt, which replaced an equivalent amount of swamp muck that had to be removed for stability.
“It’s a good project,” Bill Roux, east Ascension drainage director, said during a recent visit to the completed station. “It’s here forever.”
The floodgate has five 16-foot-wide openings. Three openings allow water to flow in and out, while the other two are for boat traffic.
Under normal conditions, the gates remain open, but when water is high, the openings are closed with 10-foot- to 14-foot-tall steel gates.
Two small pumps at the new station remove runoff from the Henderson basin in the rare case when the floodgate’s openings are closed and rain is falling, Roux said.
Sandbaggers like Marvin Braud, Willard Cointment, Epps and others agitated for drainage improvements amid a series of severe floods in east Ascension Parish in the mid- to late 1970s and early 1980s.
Ascension Parish Councilman Dempsey Lambert, chairman of the east Ascension drainage board, is a longtime advocate of the project and grew up in Galvez.
He said he remembers the worst of those east Ascension floods in April 1983. Water cut off an area fire station, and the Army National Guard drove in with high-water vehicles and loudspeakers to warn people to leave their homes and Lambert, then a high school student, helped people escape in a boat, he said.
Lambert took up the fight for his grandfather, Gilbert Buratt, a former parish police juror and councilman who has died but was heavily involved with drainage issues. Lambert joined the council in 2004, but at the time, Lambert said, the floodgate was among several Prescott Follett projects facing an uphill battle.
After intense wrangling on the drainage board and advocacy from Epps along with other councilmen, including Kent Schexnaydre and Todd Lambert, Dempsey Lambert said the floodgate was funded under a 2007 bond issue that provided $61.2 million for new capital projects. Seven years later, the floodgate is nearly finished.
“It’s taken me (10) years, and we finally fixing to cut the ribbon on this, but it’s been a 30-year ordeal … to complete the Follett drainage plan,” Lambert said.
The 40-year bond issue also paid for a $13.3 million expansion of the Marvin Braud station, which was finished last year, and will help pay for a $20 million levee extension that is a variation of one envisioned in the Follett plan.
A parish analysis suggests the Henderson Bayou floodgate will protect 17 miles of roads and nearly 500 structures, including homes, sheds and other buildings, from a 10-year flood.
Some critics said years ago that the floodgate was too expensive for the amount of protection it was going to provide. The parish never asked for federal funding, fearing the federal government would come to the same conclusion. However, since then, the area has been one of the faster growing parts of the parish.
They say the floodgate, pumps and levee are intended to work in concert, one day, with other levees and pump stations, both built and planned, to protect east Ascension from a 100-year flood.
Despite what parish officials promise, some residents living outside of the protection of the new floodgate worry that once closed, the gates will push water toward them that once flowed up Henderson Bayou.
Jimmy Villar, 63, lives off La. 431 and outside of the protection of the new floodgate. He complained to the Corps of Engineers about the project a few years go, forcing the parish to do additional engineering work that parish officials say shows the gates won’t worsen flooding on his property.
Villar said he hopes the parish is “absolutely right” but his common sense tells him something else. The uncertainty leaves him worried, he said.
“My biggest concern is I don’t know,” Villar said.
Roux said he is confident engineering has shown otherwise: Water prevented from going into Henderson Bayou will spread out in the vast Amite River Basin and have minimal effect.
The next major flood may not only show who is right but also demonstrate the foresight of the Prescott Follett plan and Sandbaggers like Epps, who, a decade ago, asked the questions that helped lead to this day.
“Well, tonight, Paw Paw Mitch, your questions have been answered,” Jeremy Epps told the drainage board Oct. 6.
“I know you are smiling down with a huge smile, and you are very proud of Ascension Parish and its leadership.”
The board agreed on Oct. 6 to name the Henderson Bayou floodgate after Mitchell Epps, and its pump station after Gilbert Buratt.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.