Here is our estimation of the Top 10 Stories of the Year in St. Mary news.
No. 1 — Flooding
The Atchafalaya River started rising steadily in late March and early April as the waters from heavy Midwestern rains carried by the Mississippi River were dumped into the Atchafalaya Basin through the Old River Control Structure.
The volume of water in the Mississippi and danger of levee breaches in populated areas led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to blow out levees in more sparsely populated areas near Bird’s Point, Mo.
As the massive flow of water continued south down the Mississippi, the Corps also opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway near Kenner, diverting water to Lake Pontchartrain; and partially opened the Morganza Spillway in Pointe Coupee Parish, which dumped more water into the Atchafalaya Basin.
Gates were closed in the floodwalls of both Morgan City and Berwick in May and remained so into June while floodwaters inundated the unprotected sides of the floodwalls. Locals watched the river rise above 10 feet, almost to record levels, but breathed a sigh of relief that early predictions of 13 feet did not come to pass.
The St. Mary Levee District took the lead on installing a barge in Bayou Chene to prevent backwater flooding that could have affected residents and businesses as far away as Iberville Parish. That repeat of strategy from 1973 and its success gave added impetus to efforts to install a permanent flood control structure in the Chene.
Louisiana National Guard members also were deployed to the area to place and fill flood protection baskets around low-lying areas and on top of levees.
No. 2 — Crime
Murder is still a blessedly rare occurrence in St. Mary Parish, but rare does not mean never.
In November, the body of Mark James Berthelot was found in a sugarcane field near Centerville. He officially was identified about two weeks later. Berthelot was reported missing by his family in early October.
Three days after the identification, Darby Frickey was arrested and charged with Berthelot’s murder. Police said at the time that further arrests were possible, but none have been made as yet.
Also in 2011, Thomas Breaux, 17, was arrested and charged with one count each of manufacture of a bomb, sexual battery of a minor and possession of child pornography. Police blocked Allison Street for much of the evening on July 29 as they made the arrest, cleared the area and defused the bombs.
The year held its share of burglaries and thefts as well, with one of the biggest and most notorious being the theft of more than $70,000 from Berwick’s recreation leagues. Rhonda Burtner, the liaison between the city and the various leagues, pleaded guilty Dec. 7.
No. 3 — Morgan City’s street tax, council and employee raises
Morgan City officials complained much of the latter half of the year of a lack of funds to repair and repave many of the city’s streets. They put a 0.3 percent sales tax on the ballot in November to create a funding stream for those projects.
At about the same time, the possibility of raises for the mayor and City Council landed on the November council agenda. Both survived first reading in November.
Just this week, at Tuesday night’s council meeting, the raises for both the mayor and council members were approved in the face of impassioned but token opposition that mustered 19 names on a petition against the move.
Both raises were approved on split votes. Councilman Larry Bergeron, who is expected to be a candidate for mayor in 2012, voted against both raises. Councilman Tim Hymel, who is Mayor Tim Matte’s brother-in-law, voted for the mayor’s raise but against the council raise.
Matte cast the tie-breaking vote to pass the council raise in Councilman Luke Manfre’s absence. Councilmen Lou Tamporello and Ron Bias voted for both raises.
The raises may be put into effect when the next term of office starts in 2013, though Matte said the next mayor and council could vote to cancel or delay the raises.
No. 4 — Patterson’s water plant bond issue
Patterson voters overwhelmingly passed a bond issue of up to $5 million to fund the expansion of the city’s waterworks capacity.
Since that April vote, the city and its engineers have been working on design plans for the upgrade that has been in the city’s sights for several years. The planned upgrade will replace aged infrastructure and boost the city water system’s capacity from 2 million to 3 million gallons, an important boost for a growing city.
While resident voters passed the bond issue, the bonded money still won’t be enough to cover a project estimated at almost $9 million. Mayor Rodney Grogan and council members are looking at revamping water and sewer rates to pay for additional loans that will be needed for the project.
No date has been set yet to break ground on the expansion.
No. 5 — Levee District executive directors
Allen Kelly came on board in March to lead the efforts of the recently approved and composed St. Mary Levee District to fund and undertake the maintenance, improvement and expansion of flood protection in the parish.
He work to ensure adequate levee protections and extensions were built during the flood fight and helped with the installation of the barge to prevent backwater flooding from Bayou Chene, but he didn’t last through hurricane season. He abruptly resigned at the beginning of September and another search for an executive director ensued.
A brief search brought the Levee District board to Hilary Thibodeaux, an engineer who worked for Shaw Coastal in Houma. While Thibodeaux said he would have liked the job during the initial search, professional obligations kept him from applying for it. Since coming on board, Thibodeaux has jumped on efforts to bring more grant funds to the district to undertake some of its wish-list projects, including the permanent flood control structure in Bayou Chene and projects on Yellow Bayou and the Franklin and Hanson canals.
In fact, while at Shaw, Thibodeaux worked on engineering plans for Bayou Chene and the Franklin Canal.
No. 6 — Morgan City Fire Department racist text message
Andrew Ratcliff Jr., a captain in the Morgan City Fire Department, allegedly texted a racially insensitive joke by mistake to Richard Anderson, a retired chief of the department who is black.
Anderson’s complaints led to disciplinary action against Ratcliff by Fire Chief Morris Price, in the form of a 30-day suspension without pay.
The Morgan City Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board started to investigate the matter, but backed off after the state civil service board recommended against it, saying it would be similar to double jeopardy since Price had already given a punishment and the city had already accepted it. Many in the black community campaigned for further sanctions but were not successful.
Ratcliff served the suspension from Sept. 6 to Oct. 5.
No. 7 — Crewboat Cut designated marine traffic route
How many years has the Morgan City Harbor and Terminal District tried to have Crewboat Cut authorized as the main traffic channel to and from the Gulf of Mexico?
The years of waiting finally came to an end this fall, as word came down from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Washington, D.C. headquarters that Crewboat Cut had wrested the coveted designation from Horseshoe Bend.
It just couldn’t be that easy, however. Landowners along the Crewboat route demanded that the riverbanks be shored up with rock to help prevent erosion in the area, and the Corps agreed. It will take time to find the money to complete the project so that final approval can go through.
No. 8 — Elections
Elections in St. Mary Parish, though important, brought few real surprises once votes were tallied.
The biggest news of the cycle was the election of Bret Allain to the state senate. Allain, of Adeline, held off fellow Republican Darrin Guidry of Houma — and a Patterson native — to succeed Democrat D.A. “Butch” Gautreaux of Morgan City, who was term-limited. Allain’s presence will bolster the GOP majority in the upper house.
In other contested races in the parish:
—Paul Naquin retained the parish presidency by beating back a challenge from parish Councilman Gary Duhon.
—Sheriff Mark Hebert rode his experience and the power of incumbency — bestowed by former Sheriff David Naquin’s early retirement — to victory over Patrick LaSalle, George Rodriguez and Jack Smith.
—On the Parish Council, Butch Metz won over incumbent Craig Mathews; incumbent David Hanagriff beat Peter Soprano; incumbent Logan Fromenthal won over Renesse Landry; Tim Tregle won an open seat over Roger Liner; Sterling Fryou replaced term-limited Chuck Walters, outpolling Norris Crappell; Albert Foulcard retained his seat against Rodney Olander; incumbent Steve Bierhorst was returned to office over Darian Breaux; and Kevin Voisin changed seats with an at-large win over Greg Green. Butch Middleton, Glen Hidalgo and Ken Singleton were returned to the council without opposition.
—James Carinhas won the post of Ward 5 constable, too.
No. 9 — Weather and the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival
People did attend the 76th edition of the festival, but the turnstile count was noticeably down — and not just because the big blowout for the diamond jubilee edition of the festival came just the year before.
President Obama could have come to the festival, tied up traffic and probably caused large portions of the grounds to be closed off in 2010, but he didn’t. This year, Tropical Storm Lee plopped itself in the middle of the festival and made itself at home for a while.
The miserable wet weather moved into the area in earnest on Friday and all but washed out events until late Sunday, when the remnants of Lee moved to the northeast.
Some bands cancelled their appearances, a second stage for music that was planned for Front Street was not utilized, the annual fireworks display was moved from Sunday to Monday and the Blessing of the Fleet was held with little ceremony at the festival office.
No. 10 — Superintendent Aguillard remains
School Superintendent Donald Aguillard almost parlayed his success in St. Mary Parish into a new job.
Aguillard was identified early as a leading candidate to replace Burnell Lemoine as superintendent in Lafayette Parish, Aguillard’s native area. He eventually became one of 26 applicants for the position.
He survived the first cut to 10 semifinalists; then put together an interview and computer slideshow presentation that made him one of three finalists in November, though he had to survive a tie-breaker vote with a current Lafayette Parish Schools employee to secure the third slot.
Shortly after being named a finalist, however, Aguillard withdrew, citing unfinished business in St. Mary Parish.