A stretch of roadway under construction using Katrina-related recovery money. This project utilizes conventional construction techniques and includes no sign of green infrastructure, according to architect Andy Sternad. Credit: Travis Lux / WWNO

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Late one morning in mid-May, metal clanked to the ground as a construction worker moved a piece of rebar at a construction site on Robert E. Lee Boulevard. The project is part of a $2 billion program to repair streets and other infrastructure damaged by the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.

The massive program could be an opportunity to incorporate green infrastructure — construction techniques that help absorb water where it falls. Porous pavement, which allows water to seep into the ground below, is one technique that can ease the strain on the city’s pumping stations.

But for the most part, the city is still building streets the conventional way. That includes this project on Robert E. Lee Boulevard.

“Here you can see basically what they’ve done is torn up the existing concrete and are just pouring new concrete in exactly the same place,” explained Andy Sternad as he examined the construction site.

“This project is not showing any sign of green infrastructure,” Sternad said. “This is pretty standard street repair.”

Changing how the city deals with rainwater

Sternad, an architect with Waggonner and Ball Architects, helped write the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, which reimagines how New Orleans can deal with rain water. Specifically, it recommends relying less on gray infrastructure, like pipes and pumps.

“There’s no way we can solve our drainage problems here with pumps only,” Sternad said. “It just won’t work.”

Street flooding is common in New Orleans during heavy rains. Climate change experts expect typical rainstorms to be heavier in the future. Credit: Tegan Wendland / WWNO

Instead, the Urban Water Plan recommends incorporating more green infrastructure into the city’s landscape. That includes bioswales — ditches that are typically include water-cleaning plants — and rain gardens — gardens designed to absorb water.

“Fundamentally, we’re trying to change the way water is managed in the city,” Sternad said. “From ‘pump first,’ to ‘pump only when necessary.’ We want to slow down water in the landscape and store it every place we possibly can.”

These kinds of projects could also reduce subsidence, which is responsible for many of the cracked sidewalks and wavy streets in the city. Holding more water in the soil will keep it from shrinking as it dries out.

City officials have been increasingly enthusiastic about green infrastructure since the Urban Water Plan was published in 2013. The city has used federal grants to incorporate some of these ideas into pilot projects. Mayor LaToya Cantrell has made infrastructure a priority for her new administration.

Rebuilding streets the old-fashioned way

Armed with that $2 billion from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, the city has started to repair damaged streets and pipes.

Ramsey Green, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer for infrastructure, said the city isn’t implementing water-absorbent techniques in these projects because there are strict rules about how FEMA money can be used.

After Hurricane Katrina, engineers inspected every aspect of the city’s infrastructure — streets, drainage pipes and sewage lines. That took several years, followed by extensive negotiations over how much New Orleans should get for repairs, said Mike Womack, executive director of FEMA’s Louisiana Recovery Office. 

”There’s no way we can solve our drainage problems here with pumps only.”—Architect Andy Sternad

FEMA eventually approved 503 infrastructure-related projects: 99 for the city of New Orleans and 404 for the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans. In total, FEMA will reimburse the city almost $2.3 billion for those repairs.

Each project was approved based on a specific scope of work. Making changes now, though not technically impossible, would be time-consuming, Womack said.

It would essentially mean starting the process over. And the city is eager to start fixing things.

“It is a long document that has all these specific things that we have to do,” Green said. “We can’t go back and change it. … We’re not going to stop projects.”

But the city may not have to. FEMA rules now give local governments some discretion over how they spend money. That could allow the city to incorporate green infrastructure into some of those projects.

After Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012, Congress passed legislation that gave local governments more freedom in how they spend FEMA money.

The Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan calls for more green infrastructure in both public and private spaces. That includes things like porous pavements that allow water to seep into the soil below, as well as rain gardens and bioswales that are specially designed to absorb rain. The Lafitte Greenway has several green infrastructure elements. Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

For instance, prior to the Sandy legislation, if the city had two blocks of damage on Royal Street and two blocks of damage on Bourbon Street, FEMA would pay to repair each street separately.

“Whatever it cost to repair Royal Street, that’s all we would pay for. Whatever it cost to repair Bourbon Street, that’s all we would pay for,” said Womack.

The post-Sandy legislation allows projects to be grouped together as one big grant. Money saved on one project can be routed to other projects, Womack said. That is the approach the city of New Orleans has taken for these repairs.

Womack said any savings could be spent in a number of ways. They could be used to repair a block of Royal Street that wasn’t damaged by the storm. Or it could be used to incorporate green infrastructure, like porous pavement and absorbent rain gardens.

“So now it’s up to the city and the Sewerage and Water Board to efficiently use the money,” Womack said.

Officials don’t want to slow down projects

City officials say they’re looking to see if that’s realistic.

Not all of the FEMA money will be spent at the same time. Some streets are being torn up now; other jobs have yet to be designed. Womack estimates it will take about five years to spend all the money.

Green said the city will take a look at the projects that are a few years out to see if there’s a way to work green infrastructure into them.

”We’re not going to jeopardize our funding. And we have to be very cautious of slowing anything down.”—Ramsey Green, City of New Orleans Deputy Chief Administrative Officer

“Can we do that? We’re looking,” Green said. “But we’re not going to jeopardize our funding. And we have to be very cautious of slowing anything down.”

Technically speaking, there is no deadline to spend all the Katrina-related repair money. But both FEMA and the city have a sense of urgency. Womack said Congress puts pressure on local governments to spend what they’re given for disaster recovery, and the clock is ticking.

“We’re now 13 years past Katrina,” he said.

FEMA believes green infrastructure is important, Womack said, and thinks the city of New Orleans should continue to implement it. But right now, he said, the city needs to get building — even if that means using a conventional approach to streets and drainage pipes.

“I think right now the importance of executing the funds outweighs the potential for the green infrastructure,” Womack said.

Of course, climate change is another kind of ticking clock. As the oceans warm, the atmosphere will hold more moisture, said Louisiana State Climatologist Barry Keim.

“There’s certainly potential to produce bigger rainstorms,” he said, like the 2016 storm that caused widespread flooding in Baton Rouge, or last year’s Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

And that means additional stress on the city’s drainage system. Even though that system is more than a century old, Sternad said it’s still important.

“We can’t live without it,” he said. “ But if we don’t change the way the current system operates — getting water to the drains as fast as possible — we’re going to continue to sink. We’re going to continue to flood. It’s that simple.”

This story was produced in collaboration with WWNO as part of the series, “New Orleans: Ready or Not?” Listen to the radio story below. 

Travis Lux

Travis is WWNO's coastal reporter. His reporting has covered a wide range of topics -- from science and health to arts and culture. His stories have aired on local public radio stations and national shows....