More than 20 years after it was first proposed, a ring levee is finally taking shape to reduce the risk of storm surge in the West Bank town of Jean Lafitte.

Officials kicked off the first phase of the project Friday, breaking ground on an $8.5 million tidal levee that will protect much of the town from storm surge even as plans move forward for levees that would ring the rest of the community.

Jean Lafitte lies outside the boundaries of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-built levee system and traditionally has had little in the way of flood protection.

While the town did not flood in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, due to the path of the storm and its accompanying tidal surge, it has flooded during four storms since then. That included significant flooding in 2011 during Tropical Storm Lee, which had relatively minor effects on the rest of the south shore.

For Mayor Tim Kerner, the groundbreaking was the culmination of years of work and frustration.

“I always heard, ‘Mayor, you’re doing a good job,’ but I didn’t feel like it,” Kerner said. “Today I’m happy to say the people of Lafitte have protection.”

The levee will run along the town’s west ern boundary, protecting homes and businesses, Fisher Middle-High School and government buildings. It will tie in with an already-built back levee that runs along the east side of that stretch, thus encircling the town.

Future projects call for additional rings around neighborhoods in the area, an effort that is expected to cost about $45 million.

The entire protection project, which was first proposed 23 years ago, is being funded largely with state money, supplemented by some money from Jefferson Parish Council members.

Friday’s event attracted parish and state officials, all of whom praised the cooperation needed to begin work and the tenacity of officials with the city and the Lafitte Area Independent Levee District that helped make the project a reality.

Parish Councilman Ricky Templet, whose district includes Jean Lafitte, praised the ability of the area’s residents to put up with frequent flooding.

“They’re the most resilient people in Louisiana,” he said. “This is due.”

Several speakers, including Parish Councilman Chris Roberts, noted that the cost of the project pales in comparison with the costs of repeated flooding.

That point was amplified by Garret Graves, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s former coastal protection chief who is now running for Congress in the 5th District and who showed up at the event with a number of campaign staffers.

In his state position, Graves had a hand in many of the discussions about funding for the project. “It’s not saving money not to build these projects,” he said.

The new levee will be less than half the height needed to block the surge of a so-called 100-year storm, one with a 1 percent chance of occurring in a given year. That’s the standard set for the Corps’ projects that surround the more populous areas of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes.

“We’re going to do everything we can” to make sure these areas have that same level of protection, Jefferson Parish President John Young said.

The levees are designed so that they can be built up to that 16-foot height if funding becomes available. Even at the planned height, they would have been large enough to prevent flooding from every storm that has hit Jean Lafitte since Hurricane Juan in 1985, levee district Director of Administration Nicole Cooper said.

Grand Isle Mayor David Camardelle, whose community also falls outside the parish’s hurricane protection system, was on hand Friday to wish Kerner well.

Work is being planned for storm defenses on Grand Isle as well, with a groundbreaking on a shore protection project expected in the next few months, Camardelle said. That project, which involves putting rocks on the shoreline to prevent erosion, is necessary before the town can begin work on levees.