Lack of support shelved 1975 study

Of the 5,000 Orange County residents mailed four levee studies by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1975, only 132 showed up for a forum seeking input at Carl Godwin Auditorium.
Of those, only 15 made public comments.

Would that number be more these days, after the destruction caused by Hurricane Ike’s devastating storm surge?

The least expensive plan 33 years ago would have cost $112 million and included three independent levee and flood wall systems designed to protect Bridge City, Chemical Row and the tri-cities area (Orange, Pinehurst and West Orange). The most costly proposal included a system of levees and flood walls running from north of the Bessie Heights area, south of Bridge City and Chemical Row and north to the Echo Community. 

The proposals were never heard from again, at least by the public.

Bridge City Mayor Kirk Roccaforte said this week there has been some off-handed discussion about levee systems among county and city officials, although it is “mostly talk.” 

“I’d like to think we could get some funds through mitigation grants,” he said. “But all the cities would have to go along with it and we’re a long way from that. We really haven’t had any official discussion of it.”

Under federal rules, a local government entity must request a need for flood protection systems and be willing to pay a certain percentage of it. According to 1975 news reports, no official agency was willing to pony up the funds, which would have ranged from $34 million to $61 million with annual maintenance costs starting at $175,000.

Kenneth Yarbrough, 77, attended the forum and remembers criticism from money issues, to potential ecological problems caused by navigational gates that could disrupt regular stream flows in Adams and Cow bayous. There was also a feeling, he says. that levees would trap Orange Countians in high water if northern reservoirs such as Toledo Bend broke.

“A lot of people thought, ‘Well there’s never been a flood, so why spend all that money on a problem when we won’t have a big storm here in 100 years,’” he says. “The study I saw mostly took care of Orange, Chemical Row and a small part of Bridge City. I don’t know if the plans I saw would have saved Bridge City [during Ike].

It was the residential part that suffered the most. 

“A lot of people [back then] felt that if some were paying taxes for [the systems] but weren’t protected, they’d be losing money.”

Yarbrough is retired from DuPont Sabine River Works. In 1975, he lived in Orange’s Roselawn Addition, which flooded during Ike.

Several years ago he took up residence along North Texas 87. He didn’t seek higher ground specifically because of a flood threat, he says, but is obviously glad he moved.

Yarbrough says he would support a wall proposal if it covered more of Bridge City than the ‘75 study, something that might encourage people to move to the area instead of leave because of flood threats.

“The county and cities need to be more progressive about it,” he says. “It just needs somebody to refine it and push a little harder.

Our economy is not as powerful as it was in ‘75, and construction costs would be much more now. I still think it might be a good thing for the area.” 

According to news reports of the forum, Thomas Penn of Orange, in support of the studies, said he had been in Galveston during a hurricane and felt such a system was justified.

The only public officials to speak were Bridge City Mayor Preston “Red” Wood and Larry Murphy, an aide to U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson. Wood warned that initial estimated costs would be much higher when construction actually began. Murphy said only that Wilson would support any local decision. 

There was no discussion of bond issues or other means to raise funds, reports showed. Galveston District Engineer Col. Don McCoy told the crowd results from the meeting would be sent to various agencies. The public also had the option of sending input to the Corps’ Galveston office.

John Frink of Orange said that in his view, the proposed systems didn’t make provisions for routine rainfall runoff and he didn’t think the pump stations could handle the flow.

Chester Pawlik, chief of the Army Engineers coastal studies section, told the audience the initial study phase had taken about a year to complete and cost some $150,000. 

The project, he said, was part of an overall Texas coastal study enacted by federal law and which helped produce the Port Arthur Seawall, still under construction in 1975.