April 15, 2006

Levee decision angers residents

By Jeffrey Jones

BURAS, Louisiana (Reuters) - Seven months after Hurricane
Katrina, Richard and Brenda Simmons still agonize over whether
to rebuild their smashed two-story home in lower Plaquemines
Parish on the southeastern tip of Louisiana.

Their decision got harder this week after the U.S.
government said it may not spend the hundreds of millions of
dollars it would take to raise all the levees on the thin strip
of land jutting into the Gulf of Mexico.

Like many here, the announcement hit Brenda, 48, hard. She
said she is angry that lower Plaquemines, a seafood and energy
hub with an eroding coastline, may get left out while much of
southern Louisiana wins beefed-up flood barriers.

"There are people who have lived their lives down here, for
heaven's sakes. They want to come home, they have no place else
to go. They put their heart and soul in this area," she said.

Residents and business owners now wonder if they will be
able to get insurance if they try to rebuild the ravaged area.

Virtually every structure in Buras, a town with a
pre-Katrina population of 3,300 about 60 miles south of New
Orleans, was damaged by Katrina on August 29. Less than a month
later, Hurricane Rita's storm surge swamped it again. The
Simmonses' street is strewn with wrecked homes and debris.

This week, Donald Powell, U.S. President George W. Bush's
Gulf Coast rebuilding chief, said the administration will ask
Congress for $2.5 billion to strengthen the levee system in New
Orleans and the vulnerable surrounding areas by 2010.

The plan is to protect 98 percent of the population from a
1-in-100-year flood by adding stronger walls and making the
levees taller, in some cases 7 feet.

But the plans don't include the south Plaquemines peninsula
through which the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated it would cost
another $1.6 billion to protect just 2 percent of the at-risk
population, or about 14,000 people in small towns like Buras,
Triumph and Venice.

The Corps' Lt. Gen. Carl Strock said engineers are trying
to figure out how to protect the narrow strip of land.

"Right now we're looking at massive earthen levees
throughout the system. There might be a more cost-effective way
to provide point protection in critical areas," he said.

But Lonnie Greco, operations manager for Plaquemines
Parish, said using population to decide levels of protection is

"It was very disappointing," Greco said. "What the rest of
the country doesn't realize is it is the only parish we have in
the state of Louisiana that puts out the oil and gas revenues
and has the seafood industry. The state's going to lose and the
rest of the country's going to lose."

The parish accounts for 40 percent of the state's energy

Outside the wreckage of his house, Richard Simmons, a
50-year-old sheriff's deputy, pointed out Americans suffered a
big spike in gasoline prices when his region's ability to
supply oil was hobbled by the storms and said that could happen
more frequently without the necessary protection here.

Venice, the parish's southernmost town, has reopened a
handful of restaurants and stores to serve the oil, gas,
shipping, commercial-fishing and sport-fishing crowds. But the
devastation is still staggering, with trailers reduced to
crumpled metal and boats left capsized on land.

Here, Carey McCarta, 60, is working to get the Deuces Wild
bar reopened for business. It is gutted and its walls bear a
brown line showing it sat in more than 6 feet of water.

He said his parish should get better levees afforded the
rest of Louisiana, although he predicted residents will return
regardless, as they did after Hurricane Camille in 1969.

"I've been here 40 years, I've paid my federal taxes and
I've paid my share of them," said the veteran boat captain.
"We've made it our home and I think we ought to be protected."