Louisiana Highway 1 Vulnerable to Storm Surge

September 18, 2012

The two-lane stretch of Louisiana Highway 1 that cuts through the marshes of south Lafourche Parish is the only road to Port Fourchon, the oil and gas hub that serves 90 percent of deepwater petroleum operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

When the highway is closed because of high water, as it was for three days during Hurricane Isaac, the industry takes an economic hit.

But, as The Advocate reports, each new storm brings with it the fear that the highway may wash away.

Isaac’s storm surge pushed into the marshes covered portions of the highway with 3 feet of water. The road was closed for 78 hours, Port of Fourchon Director Chett Chiasson said.

“We were just lucky this time that the entire road didn’t get washed out,” said Henri Boulet, executive director of the LA 1 Coalition, a group of government and industry groups that wants more of the highway elevated out of reach of possible floodwaters.

The southern leg of Louisiana 1 from Leeville to Port Fourchon was raised in work completed last year. But for 7 miles from where levee protection ends in Golden Meadow south to Leeville the highway remains at ground level.

Boulet said the section to Port Fourchon was fortunate to escape the damage seen on the highway east from Port Fourchon to Grand Isle where Isaac’s surge scoured away a few large chunks of roadway.

By contrast, the highway’s recently completed elevated portion remained well above the surge, Chiasson said.

“We saw in this storm how valuable the elevated bridge and highway is,” Chiasson said. “This new elevated highway helped us get back a lot quicker.”

He said the speed of recovery is critical because every day the port is down, about $27 million worth of business is on the line for the oil service industry and about $32,000 in sales taxes for local government.

A 2011 study by the Department of Homeland Security concluded a 90-day closure of Port Fourchon could reduce the national gross domestic product by up to $7.8 billion.

The highway is critical for the port because the activities there depend on supplies, labor and equipment that are transported by a steady stream of tractor-trailers every day, Boulet said.

While downtime during Isaac was limited, advocates for elevating the remainder of Louisiana 1 south of Golden Meadow say the potential for major damage along the road grows worse each year.

One issue is coastal erosion.

As more marsh washes away, Louisiana 1 is exposed to more open water lapping away at the road, Boulet said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that within 15 years, the combination of sinking land and rising seas will leave the non-elevated portion of Louisiana 1 between Golden Meadow and Leeville susceptible to flooding an estimated 31 times a year from normal tidal action, not counting storms.

“You’re going to have hundreds of 18-wheelers backed up,” Boulet said.

There is one obstacle in addressing the issue – money.

The recent work to build a new bridge at Leeville and to elevate the stretch of Louisiana 1 from Leeville to Port Fourchon cost about $370 million, money that was pulled together through a variety of state and federal programs.

About a third of the cost was funded by loans and bonds to be repaid with a toll now collected on the highway.

It would cost another $320 million to elevate the highway from Golden Meadow to Leeville, but toll revenue is pledged for past debt, and prospects for state funding are dim, Boulet said.

The most immediate hope for funding is to carve out a share of the billions of dollars in fines from the BP oil disaster in 2010 that will be divvied up among Gulf states, he said.

In the long term, Boulet said, Louisiana 1 advocates are also eyeing the increasing share of offshore oil and gas royalties the federal government will share under a 2006 federal law that is being gradually implemented.

For now, the prospects are uncertain.

“Both time and tide are not on our side,” he said.

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