HOUMA — The Houma-Terrebonne Airport is on the southern edge of town, more than 30 miles from the coast in Terrebonne Parish, but in 2008 it was covered with sea water from the Gulf of Mexico as Hurricane Gustav pushed water inland.
“That scared the hell out of us,” said Reggie Dupre, director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District and a state senator for the region at the time.
As Dupre tells the story, it was a turning point that got the parish and state moving forward with the construction of a levee system that would surround much of the parish.
The construction of the massive project demonstrates just one way this large parish along the coast has spent the last eight years getting ready for the next big storm, something on parish officials’ minds as a new hurricane season starts Wednesday.
“Over the last eight years, we’ve really beefed up our hurricane preparedness,” said Earl Eues, director of the Terrebonne Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “We have a lot of homes raised south of the (Gulf Intracoastal Waterway) and also have our levee system going up.”
The planning for the levee system had been in the works since 1992, working through stops and starts on its way to providing some protection for coastal residents. At 98 miles long, the Morganza to the Gulf levee system will include earthen levees and water control structures that allow for water to flow freely during normal times but shut off during storms.
The initial hope was that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would pay for the enormous project to protect people in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, but that money never materialized. Local and state governments stepped up instead.
Parish residents initially got things moving in 2001, approving a small tax to get rolling on some projects. The hope had been the project would then get the appropriate Corps-prepared report, be authorized by Congress and then federal funding for construction would start to flow.
The project was included in the 2007 federal Water Resources and Development Act, which provides authorization and is a step in potentially getting federal funding in the future, causing levee organizers in Terrebonne Parish to celebrate, Dupre remembered.
But the good news was short-lived. A few weeks later, the Corps announced that what had been an $888 million project would now cost almost $11 billion, a dramatic increase blamed on additional regulations put in place on levee building in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In 2008, still waiting for a new Corps report, hurricanes Gustav and Ike pushed inland some of the highest storm surge the parish had ever seen. Lafourche’s levee district director Windell Curole temporarily assumed control of the Terrebonne district and delivered a direct message for parish leaders.
“He (Curole) told us if you don’t build it yourself, it won’t get built,” Dupre said.
Terrebonne levee board members began authorizing construction with money already in the bank, and the projects just kept moving from there, Dupre said.
A second tax in December 2012 was approved by Terrebonne Parish residents, and the state stepped in with money as well, funding about half of the $350 million in construction so far.
“The state government is standing in the place where we thought the federal government would be,” Dupre said.
By 2017, the first-lift of the levee — up to at least 10 feet high — from Pointe-aux-Chenes to Dularge will be done. Other sections of the levee are being designed, but Dupre said during tropical storms, the parish tends to flood from east to west, so the construction done to date should offer some protection.
The levee will protect homes and fishing camps, as well as parts of the oil and gas industry forced to move after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The levees will offer more protection from storms than the parish ever had before, said Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove.
“Terrebonne Parish in the last 50 years has never had more than 10 feet of water to come in (during a storm),” he noted. The floodgates are built to 18 feet high, a height that will allow the levees to be raised even more over time.
In addition to the primary levee being built, there are more than 70 miles of a secondary parish levee system at 8 to 10 feet already in place. Between those two levee systems, there is at least 135 square miles of storage basin that can help contain the water before it ever reaches Houma, Dove said.
The parish also operates 72 pump stations that are being improved over time, some being raised or connected to a remote operation center.
There also are a number of coastal restoration projects in the works. Officials are particularly hopeful about those that bring more freshwater and sediment from the Atchafalaya River to wetlands in the western part of the parish.
Plans include a massive lock system that will be installed into the Houma Navigation Canal that is expected to be done in the next six years.
“It can all be done, but it just needs one bitty thing called money,” Dove said.
The parish also has been aggressive in another way to protect residents from flooding — the elevation of homes. Since 2002, there have been more than 1,000 homes in the parish that have been elevated through a patchwork of federal, state, parish grants, loans and personal savings, said Jennifer Gerbasi, recovery planner with the parish.
After hurricanes Gustav and Ike, federal funding helped demolish 650 buildings in the parish, as well as paying for 125 voluntary buyouts and some home reconstruction.
Gerbasi said it’s hard to determine how much more needs to be done because of the levee construction and the number of homes taken out of harms way, she said.
For Eues, the Terrebonne emergency preparedness director, it remains necessary to make evacuation a priority.
“We still have to let people know that even though your house is raised, doesn’t mean you don’t have to evacuate,” Eues said. “What we tell people is the levee system and house raising we’ve done is to protect property, not the lives of people.”
Eight years can be a long time for people to remember the devastation from a hurricane. Eues said that for several years after Hurricane Gustav in 2008, his office gave presentations in the community about what the parish was doing to prepare for the next storm. This year, his office has received just one call.
“The real test is going to be when we get the next storm and we see how many people leave,” he said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.