Louisiana Oil Executive Builds Private Flood Wall

By DOUG MacCASH | June 2, 2011

What if the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood walls ever fail again? One resident of this eternally water-threatened region plans to confront the rising tide toe to toe.

William Hines, an East Texas-born oil executive who lives in an elegant though somewhat soggy section of Old Metairie, has enclosed his property with his own private flood wall.

The 700-foot-long, 6-foot-tall, steel-reinforced concrete barrier is designed to be invisible, sheathed in a brick façade to blend with the house it protects and further camouflaged with a continuous holly hedge.

Only the tell-tale steel flood gates bristling with submarine-style latches give it away.

Geographically speaking, the area where Hines’ home is located, known as Hoey’s Basin, is a flood magnet.

Back in 1995, the May 8 rainstorm swamped the 7,500-square-foot, English-style, two-story mansion Hines shares with his wife, Lily, with more than a foot of water.

Ten years later, the failure of the federal floodwalls during Hurricane Katrina turned the tony neighborhood into a lake, steeping the house in 5 feet of brackish water for two weeks.

Hines rode out Katrina and the opening chapter of the flood at home with Lily and friends in what sounds like a reasonably civilized manner. “We didn’t open the wine cellar until 5 in the afternoon,” he said.

After two days, William and Lily were rescued by boat. A private helicopter delivered them to Lafayette, where they lived in hurricane exile for nine months.

When the water finally receded, the house was a typical post-K catastrophe. The ground floor was strewn with waterlogged furniture and belongings like an indoor shipwreck. The front yard was brown and littered with fallen oak limbs. Photos capture a murky high-water smudge across the picture windows.

Hines bought a house on a nearby street to live in while the old place was renovated. The cypress paneling and stone floors of the flooded home were restorable; the drywall was not. The citrus trees that stud the backyard had survived.

To this day, he hasn’t re-established the putting green behind the pool. “Where do you stop restoring?” he asked.

Hines used a knife to nick the edge of the front door about chin level, just where the water stopped rising, so he’d never forget.

Hines said he never seriously considered moving to higher ground. After all, he’d lived in the house for 30 years and the neighborhood for 10 years before that.

Staying put was one thing; trusting fate was another. His first instinct was to elevate the house above the flood line, but experts told him it was unfeasible.

There was no dramatic, eureka moment, when the notion of a do-it-yourself levee came to Hines’ mind, he said. He simply wanted to “see if I can protect myself.”

So, he “just found an engineer who could engineer it” and embarked on the 12 months of construction, he said.

Was the contractor he contacted surprised at his request for a private flood wall? No. “They said, we’ll build whatever you’ll pay for,” he recalls.

Hines, who speaks in a sort of jovial growl, won’t say what the concrete wall cost. “A bunch” is as far as he’ll go.

Construction, he explained, began with a 4-foot trench to contain the unseen, subterranean part of the barrier.

Ten-foot steel pilings pierce the earth to prevent the monstrous weight of flood water from toppling the wall, which was built 5 inches taller than the Katrina high-water mark.

The barrier is painted park-bench green to better blend into the verdant surroundings. “Nobody really realizes what the hell it is,” Hines said.

He is unsure of the neighbors’ reactions to his wall, because, as he put it, “I never asked `em.”

With the threat of an impending flood, a steel gate that looks like a miniature version of the flood barriers that close off roads along the Lake Pontchartrain levee in Lakeview slides across Hines’ driveway. Heavy bolts snug the steel barrier to the ground.

Smaller steel gates protect pedestrian entrances at the front and rear of the property, secured with several of the sort of robust steel handles you might see on the hatches of a ship.

The handles sandwich thick rubber gaskets between the gate and wall to produce a presumably waterproof seal.

The front gate is split horizontally, like an old-fashioned kitchen door, to allow last-minute coming and going as the water begins to rise.

Waterproofing creates its own problems, Hines explained. Imagine, he said, “it’s raining like hell. What happens to the water inside?”

Answering his own question, Hines pointed out a submerged pump, discreetly hidden in a well beside the driveway.

The pumps, as well as the house lights and air conditioning, can be powered by an emergency 85-kilowatt generator perched on a platform in the backyard. (For the sake of comparison, a typical whole-house generator for a 2,000- to 3,000-square-foot house would be 12 to 20 kilowatts.)

The pumps can handle 7 inches of rainfall per hour, Hines said. To prevent the possibility of an unpleasant backwash, he installed a valve to close off the house’s sewer line.

It all seems relatively convenient. “When it gets dark, what do you do? You turn the lights on,” Hines said. “When the hurricane comes, what do you do? You close the wall.”

Hines said he couldn’t discuss the possibility of the Mississippi River escaping its banks, because the kind of tsunami-like cataclysm some pundits pessimistically described would overwhelm any home defense.

Hines’ wall was finished almost three years ago, and so far, so good.

New pumps, built throughout Hoey’s Basin by Jefferson Parish after Katrina, have relieved the sort of occasional street flooding that once threatened neighborhoods in the area. And, of course, there hasn’t been a repeat of the 2005 levee failures.

So Hines’ wall has yet to be tested. That’s the way he wants to keep it.

“When you buy insurance,” he asked, “do you expect to use it?”

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