BELLE CHASSE, La. - Alice Sino knew she was on the wrong side of the gates.
The massive floodgate visible from her neighborhood closes each time a big storm approaches - leaving her to face potential floods without protection. Meanwhile, homes on the other side are protected from the destructive storm surges.
Hurricane Isaac's ferocious pounding shocked her and she fled with her husband on Monday, a day before floodwaters overtopped nearby levees and swallowed her home.
"So much water," Sino said. "It just hurts my heart."
Sino was among several dozen residents of Braithwaite, a small community in Plaquemines Parish 19 miles southeast of New Orleans, who fled or needed to be rescued when floodwaters overran the area. The water rose to roof awnings and became trapped there by tidal levees ringing the community.
On Thursday, work crews dug a trench into a nearby levee to allow the water to escape. It'll take about 24 hours for 70% of the water to drain out of Baithwaite and into nearby marshes, said John Monzon, chief of operations for the Louisiana Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration. Pumps will get rid of the rest.
The drowning of Braithwaite has reignited questions about who gets to be inside the massive, 200-mile perimeter of federally built levees and floodgates circling the greater New Orleans area and who's left outside and exposed to powerful storms.
Most of the area inside the system, which was bolstered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the coast in 2005 at a cost of $14.45 billion, weathered Isaac well. Communities outside, including Braithwaite, Delacroix and Shell Beach, were overrun by water.
Though some residents may object to being outside the levees, the Corps made improvements to a system that had already in place for more than four decades, said Tim Doody, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection-East, an agency created after Katrina to monitor levee rebuilding. People who move into areas outside the system do so knowing they are outside the protection zone, he said.
"It's not a surprise that some people are inside and others are outside the system," Moody said. "They know they're doing it when they move in."
For new projects, the Corps, working on a limited budget, runs a "cost-benefit" formula, calculating the potential damage to an area vs. the cost to build around it, he said. Funding also needs congressional approval and appropriation, among other hurdles, Moody said. "'I want to protect my community' is easy to say but tough to do," he said.
As marshes erode and the Gulf of Mexico creeps closer inland, it becomes increasingly impossible to ring every community with levees, especially those closer to the coast, said Kerry St. Pe, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program. Tough decisions will need to be made, he said.
"Do you spend millions of dollars to bring in a few families?" St. Pe said. "It's expensive building levees. That's the tragic result of land loss."
Quinton Washington, 53, a Baptist minister in southern Plaquemines Parish, watched a few years ago as engineers erected taller floodgates to the north of him. He attended town hall meetings where parish officials explained the project and took residents' input, he said. But their concerns didn't seem to factor into the final decision, Washington said.
After storm surge from Isaac overtook his home, he evacuated to a shelter in Belle Chasse, which lies within the levee system. "One area is protected and one is vulnerable," Washington said. "It's devastating."
Sino, of Braithwaite, said she remembers when workers raised the floodgate near her home. She took it as a bad sign.
"When they put it up, I said, 'They're going to drown us out,'" Sino said. "And that's exactly what happened."