Bruin backsup: Oxbow lake swells, threatens homes

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 14, 2008

TENSAS PARISH — As the final gasps of a slowly weakening Hurricane Gustav turned into a torrential downpour for much of central and northern Louisiana last week, residents along scenic Lake Bruin had just hours to rush mowers and other equipment to higher ground when the waters reclaimed the shoreline.

“That morning, it was just past the concrete,” 13-year resident O.L. Evans said, struggling for a moment to point out the edge of his driveway beyond the murky water surrounding his lakeside property on Louisiana 606.

“It was 6 inches deep by that afternoon and got up to 12 1/2 inches that night,” Evans said as he sloshed around his front yard, minnows still schooling at waterlines receding at a snail’s pace a week after then-Tropical Depression Gustav, in just days, dumped a half-summer’s worth of rain on Tensas Parish.

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The seventh named storm of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season didn’t spare much of its rains from inland areas many miles from landfall.

In addition to overflow directly from the lake, water from the Tensas River to the west has backed up through small canals and into Lake Bruin, leaving it about 3 feet higher than its customary pooling stage of 62.5 feet and shuttering recreational boat traffic.

The boat ban remains in effect until stages drop back to normal levels, Lake Bruin Recreation and Conservation District vice-chairman Donald Barazzo said.

Despite sandbags placed at some front doors and rolls of water-logged carpet starting to pop up in residential carports, officials say the worst could be just an isolated shower away — a with the effects of Hurricane Ike expected to dump up to another inch of rain in western Tensas Parish.

“If we had more water on top of this, we’d have serious flooding,” Barazzo said as watchful eyes across the Gulf States tracked the strengthening storm in the extreme southeastern Gulf of Mexico as it marched west toward Texas.

The Hydrometeorological Prediction Center, part of the National Weather Service, tracked rainfall in the parish from Gustav in the 10-inch range, on par with Vicksburg’s 10.75 inches over three days.

Dennis Burns, the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center Research & Extension Agent for Tensas Parish, puts the parishwide estimate even higher.

“We got from 11 1/2 to 15 1/2 inches for the Gustav event,” Burns said. “We had already had 16 inches for August when we usually get about 4.”

Evans didn’t lose many possessions, thanks to his 8-foot-high, open-air basement upon which his and several Lake Bruin homes are elevated — forming some protection from periodic overflows from the lake.

Driving around the 3,000-acre oxbow lake pinched off years ago from the meandering Mississippi River is easy, as the main road hugging the horseshoe-shaped perimeter is untouched, unlike the Mississippi River floods of 1973 that officials said claimed large sections.

However, access to properties often sunken below the roadbed is quite another matter.

Near the lake’s southern end, Britt Keahey can only stand at his mailbox and point to his small, rental cabin on Motel Road.

“It’s usually a lot more attractive than that,” Keahey said, adding water had receded about an inch a day from property on which his father developed in 1971.

“I think 1973 was the only other time it was like it is now.”

In recent years, homes used strictly as weekend getaways have joined its tenured population to the point of being the dominant identity of the lake, partially owned by the State of Louisiana through its operation of Lake Bruin State Park.

“There are more of those than permanent residents,” Tensas Parish District 3 Police Juror Jane Netterville said.

It has become an especially popular getaway for a string of Vicksburg residents, including Mayor Laurence Leyens, auto dealer George Carr and District 1 Supervisor David McDonald.

Like McDonald’s two tracts, the underside of Vicksburg physician John Robert Ford’s lakeside home was inundated, but wasn’t a loss.

“We built up on stilts,” Ford said. “I got everything out of there last week.”

A real estate broker and lake property owner herself, Netterville is relieved her restaurant and general store were spared — just a few wet boards on a dry pier.

Though flooded fishing piers and yards remain a nuisance for most, property values already sending sale prices of lakeside property to the $300,000 mark and higher should remain steady because of the preponderance of elevated construction — making the job of marketing raised homes like Evans’ easier, Netterville said.

“People can ride around and know where our low areas are,” Netterville said. “You need flood insurance if you’re going to live here.”

Insurance firms can expect Gustav-related costs to run anywhere from $2 billion to $10 billion, Louisiana Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon has said. More than 6,000 claims were reported filed by last week with Louisiana Citizen’s Property Insurance Corp., the state’s insurer of last resort.

Those costs and losses to the area’s agriculture interests looming, Tensas officials intend to renew efforts to apply for whatever grants can help replace flood-control infrastructure.

Ricky Foster, the parish’s Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, said Tensas will apply for funds related to the statewide disaster declaration making Tensas and 27 other north Louisiana parishes eligible for emergency work and repairing or replacing disaster-damaged facilities.

Matching funds either locally or from the state a built-in uncertainty, an additional catch is expected to lie with the federal agency’s “cost-benefit” analysis of certain projects — in a nutshell, whether a piece of parish property was damaged enough to be approved for money.

“During Katrina, it didn’t meet the analysis,” Foster said.

A gated control structure on a drainage canal running under U.S. 65 west of the lake remained overtopped by about two feet this week, effects of the Tensas’ Sept. 5 crest nearest the lake at 54 feet. Replacing the rusty apparatus installed in the 1970s is tops on a list of long-term projects for parish officials.

Netterville said a $15 annual fee attached to tax assessments on Lake Bruin parcels passed July 19 by voters in the lake oversight district will be directed to structure improvements, whatever shape it takes.

“I know we have a thousand other projects we want done, but we need those grant funds,” Netterville said.