Although St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister said Tuesday that parish government is ready for the upcoming hurricane season, projects in two of the parish’s most vulnerable cities remain mired in bureaucratic holdups.
All parish departments have reviewed their emergency plans and assigned roles to employees to make sure government continues to operate during a storm, Brister said at a news conference. She called the past winter’s ice storms a practice run for weather emergencies.
While some forecasts call for a less active than average hurricane season, Brister pointed out that severe storms have often struck in less active seasons and said the parish will not let its guard down.
Essential parish employees — who must stay on duty during emergencies — are required to have an evacuation plan for their families, Brister said, urging all parish residents to do the same and to check on the readiness of elderly neighbors.
In Mandeville, where water poured over the seawall during Hurricane Isaac in 2012, squabbles over how to protect the part of the city closest to Lake Pontchartrain have persisted since last year. The City Council placed funds in the budget for the city to purchase valves to put on the culverts that drain the city into the lake. But so far, the city has purchased only five valves for the nearly three dozen culverts.
Mayor Donald Villere has argued that spending $300,000 on a full complement of valves would be pointless until the valves are tested for effectiveness.
“These five locations offer us the most opportunity to see if these things work,” he said.
Councilman Rick Danielson said he was frustrated by the slow pace.
“We know we are vulnerable,” he said of the city. “Anything is better than nothing, and right now we have nothing.”
The city is “no more ready” than it was a year ago, Danielson said — a characterization Villere disputed. He said Mandeville has improved communication with residents and has plans to restrict traffic into parts of the city if flooding occurs.
In Slidell, meanwhile, another project officials expected to be in place this year — the raising of the U.S. 11 roadway over the levee south of Slidell — has been delayed. Work was supposed to start next month, but Brister said it is still in the design phase because of changes demanded by the state.
When the state Department of Transportation and Development held public meetings on the project, residents had mixed feelings about the overall design of the U.S. 11 corridor, parish spokesman Ronnie Simpson said, so the state has not finalized the plans.
“It’s in our best interest to wait until they finalize their plan, so that the work won’t have to be done twice,’’ he said.
The parish constructed a detour road last year so people would not be trapped in their neighborhoods if Slidell decides it needs to close the gap in the levee by putting Hesco baskets across the highway.
Across the parish, other preparations are proceeding apace.
The parish’s Department of Health and Human Services has been reaching out to special-needs residents to make sure they are registered, a process Brister said will make it possible to find them and get them moved to a shelter before a storm.
Other resources include the website ready.gov, which Brister said has a list of resources and checklists. She urged people to register with Alert St. Tammany, which provides phone or text alerts for storms and all other types of emergencies.
Lock No. 2 on the Pearl River Navigational Canal, which posed a threat when it was damaged during Isaac, has been repaired and is being monitored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Brister said that agency has a new protocol in place to keep the water low enough so the scouring that happened during Isaac will not happen again.
Another change is in the offing, with legislative passage of Senate Bill 342 by Sen. Jack Donahue, which pulls St. Tammany Parish out of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. The measure calls for creation of the St. Tammany Levee, Drainage and Conservation District, which will include the parish’s coastal zone. The act calls for the governor to appoint a board of commissioners by Sept. 1.