Government & Politics
 

Drivers rejoice: FEMA and city find a way to start fixing neighborhood streets damaged by Katrina floodwaters

By Ariella Cohen, The Lens staff writer |

Six years and two mayoral elections after floodwaters walloped New Orleans, the city is finally focusing on a solution to what may be its least sexy but most widely felt problem:  swerve-inducing, cratered and cracked neighborhood streets.

The Landrieu administration is expected to announce today a FEMA-funded neighborhood streets program that will send tens of millions of dollars into neighborhoods for street resurfacing, as well as new curbs and sidewalks in some places. The work will be done in coordination with the Sewerage & Water Board repairs to leaking lines.

There are no details yet on which streets will be fixed, but already FEMA has set aside a fresh $45 million obligation for work just in the Lower 9th Ward, said Eddie Williams, supervisor of the federal agency’s New Orleans Public Assistance Division.

Another “pretty substantial amount” is headed for Lakeview following the completion of a routine review in Washington, said Williams, a 7th Ward native who now lives in Jefferson Parish. In another 27 neighborhoods, surveyors have assessed streets, completing the first step towards filing a damage claim, mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni said.

Eddie Williams heads FEMA's New Orleans Public Assistance Division. He says the relationship between FEMA and the city has improved in the year and half since Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office. Photo by Aubrey Edwards

“These are major things that will really change the way people look at the recovery,” Berni said. “Of course, we had the submerged road program or this other (program), but people were like, ‘What about my neighborhood road that had water sitting on it.’ Well, this will bring money for those repairs.”

The pending federal obligations will supplement  $285 million in federal grants and money from 2000 and 2004 bond issues previously committed to post-Katrina roadwork. Much of that $285 million remains unspent, with about half of the city’s public works projects still in pre-construction phases, city records show.

Ridden with cracks, bumpy patches and gaping potholes, New Orleans’ narrow side streets serve as daily reminder of the city’s incomplete recovery. Every lurch confirms the vast toll Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding from levee breaches took on aging and already fragile infrastructure. Even as major arteries such as Claiborne Avenue, Franklin Avenue and Downman Road have undergone transformation through a $104 million federal program targeting such traffic-heavy routes, neighborhood streets have continued to deteriorate.

They’re taking a toll on undercarriages and patience alike.

At a recent public meeting about priorities for the 2012 city budget, a third-generation Algiers resident stood up, pointed a finger at the mayor and warned him that he had limited time left to replace the buckling roads in his subdivision – or risk losing a tax-paying homeowner.

“My family is gone,” Donald Costello said. “I am the last of the Mohicans here. And at the end of your administration, I am going to make a decision: the North Shore or Algiers.”

The remainder of the two-hour public meeting was dominated by similar concerns about potholes and leaky water pipes that to an outsider would seem prosaic in a city with the highest murder rate in United States. Yet as property taxes inch up and residents continue to drive on roads that often feel like a low-budget obstacle course, it is likely that the calls will only get louder.

“People want to see the basic stuff taken care of,” Councilwoman Stacy Head said. “They want potholes fixed, sidewalks repaired, blight taken care of — the things that impact them every day.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to make sense of the fact that it has taken six years for the city to establish a channel for sending FEMA money to neighborhood streets.

The Landrieu administration credits itself with getting the program off the ground, though others said former Mayor Ray Nagin got things started.

Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant confers with staffers about capital project construction. As deputy mayor for facilities, infrastructure and community development, Grant works closely with Mayor Mitch Landrieu in negotiations with FEMA. Staffers from left to right are Vincent Smith, capital projects administration director; Katie Dignan, project delivery manager; Kaylen Eckert, federal and state grants manager. Photo by Aubrey Edwards

“We have teams of people canvassing neighborhoods and (drafting) a neighborhood streets program and that wasn’t done before,” said Cedric Grant, Deputy Mayor for Facilities, Infrastructure and Community Development. “This is kind of ‘Let’s go back to the drawing board. Let’s rethink.’

“There is certainly more money on the table that can be gotten and now we are getting it.”

The grant dollars come at least partially as a result of a street surveying effort initiated by recently fired Public Works Director Robert Mendoza under the administration of former mayor Ray Nagin.  In the last weeks of the Nagin administration, Mendoza, who Landrieu dumped for unrelated reasons, told The Times-Picayune that he expected FEMA to send $64 million for street repairs in flooded neighborhoods. It is possible that he was referring to the money earmarked for the Lower 9th Ward and Lakeview.

Mendoza could not be reached for comment, but longtime Broadmoor community activist and president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association LaToya Cantrell recalls working with him years ago on a plan for surveying streets in flooded neighborhoods.

“You can’t sell me on the ‘It’s a new day’ thing,” Cantrell said.  “Issues are issues and people have been working on them a long time, no matter who is in the mayor’s seat.”

Broadmoor Improvement Association President LaToya Cantrell has been advocating for roadwork since the floodwaters receded from her neighborhood. She and her daughter Ray Ann are looking forward to riding their bicycles on smoother streets. Photo by Aubrey Edwards

A MORE PRODUCTIVE RELATIONSHIP

Irrefutable, however, is the sense that FEMA officials and the city are these days playing nice in a way they weren’t two years ago. During a recent interview at the dark-glass, suburban-style Algiers office campus that is FEMA’s regional headquarters, Williams said that the Landrieu administration is easier to work with than its predecessor.

“The previous administration had this hodge-podge approach,” Williams explained. “It was ‘Pick a project today that is the issue and let’s get FEMA to do it.’ It’s different now. More focused. I don’t want to say it was adversarial before, but we were all working in silos. There is more joint collaboration now.”

Landrieu, Williams said, has taken a more aggressively focused tack with FEMA than Nagin.

In Williams’ view, that change in strategy means faster and, in some cases, larger settlements – and not only where streets are concerned. Case in point: the mayor’s 100-project recovery plan. Announced this time a year ago, the plan stopped progress on hundreds of stalled recovery projects in order to concentrate resources on prioritized projects and, ideally, guarantee that those chosen libraries, police stations, firehouses, community centers and parks would be open for business by the end of the Landrieu’s first term.

In the past year, the administration has haggled with FEMA for a combined total increase of more than $125 million shared between street, infrastructure and building projects, FEMA documents show. Another $70 million has gone to Sewerage and Water Board projects. Money promised for projects that Landrieu has shelved will remain obligated until the administration decides to move forward with construction or shift the money into another project, Williams said.

The funding boost will affect projects across the city, ranging from an increase of  $786,000 for the rebuilding of Oliver Bush Park in the Lower 9th Ward, to an uptick of $104,905 for Joseph Barthomolow Golf Course in Pontchartrain Park down to a modest $1,515 lift for stop signs across the city.

The negotiations mean that a bank account that had $605.3 million when Landrieu took office had, as of August 1, $686 million, documents show. By August 25, the amount had jumped to $706.6 million, according to officials from FEMA and the city.

“I guess you could say it was inevitable (more money would come) for some projects once they moved out of design phase into construction phase,” Williams said. “But I have to give (Landrieu) credit – because of the administration’s focus, we have moved forward faster.”

MAJOR CLAIMS UNRESOLVED

But even as FEMA and the city move forward on individual projects, big questions remain on how to pay for public-safety infrastructure, parks and the failing water distribution system responsible for much of the city’s street damage.

Landrieu wants to see the entire water system declared more than 50 percent damaged by Katrina and thus eligible for FEMA-funded replacement. A pre-Katrina estimate pegged the cost of rebuilding the system at $3.2 billion over 20 years of construction – a cost  FEMA is not eager to take on. The federal agency, which has put more than $376 million towards Sewerage & Water Board infrastructure since Katrina,  has created a protocol for evaluating system repairs, but there is no consensus on how much of the system would be eligible for replacement given the amount of damage to system that occurred before the storm, Williams said.

“We can’t write a blank check and say, ‘Go do good things,’ ” he said

The city also continues to negotiate with FEMA over a single settlement for public safety facilities. Last year, the Recovery School District managed to win such a settlement to the tune of $1.8 billion for the rebuilding of the city’s schools. Unlike traditional project-by-project settlements, such a global settlement, which requires federal legislation, allows flexibility in how it divvies funds among various facilities. Landrieu would like to see parks and other recreational facilities included in any future public-safety settlement.

“We view recreational facilities as public-safety facilities because they are critical to keeping our young people safe,” Grant said.

That logic does not hold water with FEMA.

“We are not in alignment there,” Williams said.  “We struggle from a regulatory and program perspective to make that leap to say that parks and recreation are public safety.”

He said that instead of being given a single lump sum, the city is free to consolidate recreational facilities and transfer money from multiple projects into a single larger facility.

“The fact that they are behind the curve and haven’t done so many things gives the current mayor a lot of flexibility to use funds in a consolidated approach,” Williams said.

NO SURE ENDING FOR THE ORANGE CONES

On a recent Friday at FEMA’s regional headquarters, more than 50 federal employees stared at computer monitors. On their screens flashed the project worksheets that determine claims for every FEMA repair that isn’t covered by a global settlement.  One employee had three empty Diet Coke cans on her desk. She looked tired. Another employee had a post-it on his desk reminding him to upload revisions to Project Worksheet 1383.

This time a year ago, 160 of 686 project settlements were open and unresolved. Now those 160 are settled and another 171 are open, documents show.  FEMA has no timeline for completing the voluminous paperwork that accompanies each settlement beyond a general, “our timeline is contingent on the pace that the recovery.” In 2014, Williams said, FEMA will evaluate whether a regional office is still needed.

“We are six years out” from Katrina, he said. “People look at it as a long time, but when you look at the size of (New Orleans’) construction program – $700 million. It’s going to take time to work through that.”

As for the federal tap, he is not concerned that budget cuts and spendthrift attitudes in Washington will stop the flow of rebuilding money, or that eventually FEMA will say enough is enough.

“We understand the severity of the situation,” Williams said. “We are going to stay a good partner and help them get to the point where they recognize the dollars that they are eligible for and get moving.

“There is no downward pressure that is saying we are going to cut you off,” Williams said.  “Honestly speaking, we will never deny a legitimate claim, no matter how much time has passed.”

The city is also reluctant to say when the cycle of FEMA claims will be complete.

“I don’t want to say by the middle of next year we’ll be done and there is another opportunity,”  Grant said. “We are still looking at pumps and water lines. Until we drill down as far as we can, I hate to say we are done, if six months can get you to a much better place.

“We’d rather let FEMA take their time (to see the validity of a claim) than rush them and end up with less.”

It’s impossible to determine how much time was lost to poor communication between the Nagin administration and FEMA. Williams, who, like Nagin, displays a Zulu coconut prominently on his desk, admits that there was a cost.

“Let’s just say the other parishes have progressed pretty well,” he said. “They are probably a lot further along.”

Yet history shows that recovery on the scale that is happening in New Orleans is lengthy process. Tiny Homestead, Fla., took 14 years, until 2006, to complete negotiations with FEMA after being decimated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Mayor Steven Bateman said.

“By 2006, there were just a few things left to resolve,” he said. “It was a long, hard recovery. Even after 10 years, you could still see signs of Andrew out in the community.”

Before Katrina, Andrew ranked as the United States’ costliest disaster.

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  • M Styborski

    Sidewalks, they say…? I hope someone reminds them not to destroy the street tiles! Otherwise, carry on!