Chapel on the River

Lance Weber walks on a plank on the dock outside Our Lady of Blind River Chapel in St. James Parish, La., Tuesday, April 9, 2019. The chapel was built decades ago by his grandparents, Martha Deroche and her husband Bobby, after Martha had a vision of Jesus kneeling by a rock. Over the years, people have stopped by in boats or kayaks to pray in the one-room chapel. But floods over the years have damaged the little church, and Lance had to close it about two years ago out of safety concerns. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

CONVENT — St. James Parish President Pete Dufresne has declared a state of emergency for the upcoming spring flood and hurricane season so crews can start clearing out problem blockages in major and minor canals and ditches.

Parish officials said in a statement Thursday that the order allows parish workers and possibly parish contractors to enter private property for drainage work while parish officials check where they have a legal right to access ditches and waterways.

"I authorize the St. James Parish Operations Director to identify, mobilize, and provide equipment, resources, and employ contractors necessary to alleviate the hazards and ensure that this project is a success,” Dufresne said in the statement. 

Former Parish President Timmy Roussel and Roussel's operations director Blaise Gravois came under criminal accusation from prosecutors in St. James over allegations they authorized and oversaw public work on private land, including along drainage canals.

Parish officials and council members have complained the long-running cases, which are still pending, had the indirect effect of slowing down day-to-day drainage work. During that time, the Roussel administration and council had also pitched a regional drainage and flood protection plan, but were unable to win voter support for dedicated taxes.

Dufresne replaced Roussel in January after winning in fall elections. Roussel did not seek re-election after two terms.

Dufresne's executive order allows the parish to take precautionary measures and implement a drainage task force plan that addresses east and west bank drainage problems, parish officials said.

With the order, the parish government will be able to deploy immediately to dig out major canals, as a priority, and then also work in a grid system to clear smaller ditches and waterways.

Dufresne told the Parish Council on Wednesday that when he and his administration took office, they started out with a parishwide infrastructure assessment and determined the drainage system is in "dire need of attention in order to be able to function properly."

He suggested that numerous ditches and waterways were in need of work and posed a threat of flooding homes and businesses even in average rains.

Dufresne's new director of operations, Rick Webre, who was the longtime homeland security in Ascension Parish until he stepped down to run for president in that parish last fall, added that the amount of vegetative growth already in the canals requires that the parish put a priority on drainage.

"One of the key aspects of this is if we don't get this cleaned this year, probably next year we're going to have to start clearing and grubbing many of these … canals, and it's going to be much more expensive to do that instead of just going out and mowing grass," Webre said.

The president's emergency order, Webre said, "gives us a little bit more freedom to move around to go on private property. Trust me, I'm not a Communist. I don't want to take anybody's property."

Webre told the council that parish crews will still try to obtain authorization in advance from landowners to access their land, but, if the crews can't find the owners, they will enter the property to cut the grass under the emergency order's authorization. 

Under the order, parish government also recognizes the need to communicate with landowners and accepts the responsibility to repair damage that may happen due to the drainage work.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.