Incomplete Test: Hurricane Ida was not the ultimate challenge for the area’s levee system

Hurricane Center warns a path 15 miles to the east could overtop West Bank levees
Published: May. 24, 2022 at 1:04 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Along Bayou Lafourche in Golden Meadow, Cynthia Bartlett recalls looking at the destruction to her community following Hurricane Ida.

“When I first came home, I cried,” Bartlett said. “I’m blessed my house is still standing, I really am. So many people had it so much worse.”

Nine months after the hurricane bulldozed through communities along La. Hwy. 1, a quick trip on either side of the bayou reveals a place still hurting.

“You can see the levee’s taller than the tops of the houses,” said Windell Curole, General Manager of the South Lafourche Levee District from atop a levee overlooking Golden Meadow.

The district has significantly raised the height of its levees over the past 15 years. Curole notes Ida produced a small amount of overtopping, but not one flood insurance claim was filed in South Lafourche.

“Had we had storm surge, there’s no doubt we would have lost hundreds of people,” Curole says.

Each year, they survey the height of their new levees.

In one spot near Cutoff last year, Curole said they added a few critical feet of elevation.

“If we had not done that work, we would’ve had two feet, maybe three feet of water coming through that gap and that’s enough velocity to actually cause a breach,” Curole said.

In other areas, the debris line came perilously close to the top of the levee.

“It’s very important to understand this was the fifth most intense storm ever to hit the United States. It was on the critical path for us,” Curole says.

South Lafourche took a do-it-yourself approach to its levees, funding and building them without a big assist from Washington D.C.

In contrast, the federal government spent roughly $14.5 billion to upgrade the levees around much of metropolitan New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, including some of the largest civil works projects in the country’s history.

“This world-class design, done with supercomputers, extensive modeling, produced a system that’s resilient,” said Col. Stephen Murphy, commander for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District.

The National Hurricane Center warns Ida was not the ultimate test of the new levee system protecting parts of the area.

A Hurricane Center model shows that had Ida followed a path just 15 miles to the east, the storm surge might have overtopped some locations along the West Bank levee system and parts of Plaquemines Parish.

The Hurricane Center does not specify how much the levees would be overtopped or specific locations.

“If there is an overtopping, the levee’s not going to erode away and fail like we saw during Katrina,” Murphy said.

With improvements to the levee system, including the turf that tops them, the Corps points out the levees are designed to be overtopped.

“As good as this system is, we can’t completely reduce risk,” Murphy says.

Originally, the Hurricane Center model warned overtopping could have taken place in South Lafourche had Ida veered farther to the east. However, it has since been clarified that Ida actually provided the more serious test for the levees along Highway 1.

Curole warns that should not give people a false sense of security after a close call.

“A boat or a barge could clip the top of that levee relatively easily and just cause a breach here in the system and everybody floods,” Curole said. “When there’s a powerful storm, get out.”

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