In the latest installment of WWNO and The Lens’ infrastructure series, “New Orleans: Ready or Not?” reporter Travis Lux takes a look at how New Orleans is using billions in federal reimbursement dollars to repair its streets and drainage systems, and whether the repairs will best prepare the city for future flooding.
New Orleans is in the midst of the infrastructure overhaul, more than 500 street and drainage projects using $2 billion in Katrina-related funds from FEMA.
The 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 a project Lux and architect Andy Sternad visited 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,” Sternad said as he examined the construction site.
“This project is not showing any sign of green infrastructure,” Sternad said. “This is pretty standard street repair.”
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.”
The fallout continues at Harney charter school this week, as the board president announced that Chief Financial Officer Brent Washington has been fired.
Washington is facing an ethics investigation over an outside accounting contract he had with the school even while he was employed there as the school’s chief accountant.
“Brent Washington was terminated,” the Rev. Charles Southall III, president of Harney’s board, said. “The board took action and we pulled the trigger at the end of the school year.”
The school also faces ongoing scrutiny over its handling of finances, including questionable credit card purchases, poor record-keeping and, most recently, the revelation that the school held onto employees’ retirement contributions for months before depositing them in their retirement accounts. The move likely violates IRS guidelines and could have deprived the employees of investment gains. The Lens also found at least one case, in Baltimore, where the head of a nonprofit was sentenced to two years in prison for theft after he withheld his workers’ retirement payments.
Earlier this month, Orleans Parish school district officials said they were seeking a forensic auditing team to help investigate Harney.
In May, after learning that people were paid to attend public meetings to voice support for Entergy’s $210 million New Orleans East power plant, New Orleans City Council members said they would call for an investigation. A firm would have to be vetted and hired, but they expected everything to move quickly.
This week, we learned there’s a good chance the investigation won’t be done until September.
The city council officially sought applications from firms on May 24. On June 21, it selected the law firm of Sher Garner Cahill Richter Klein & Hilbert, as well as retired Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson.
The city attorney’s office hasn’t finalized the contract, Andrew Tuozzolo, chief of staff for Councilwoman Helena Moreno, told The Lens.
He said everything should be wrapped up by the end of July.
Investigators have 30 days to issue a report, but they could request an extension.
Meanwhile, the investigation has led to a pause in an ongoing lawsuit against the council filed by environmental groups who say Entergy and its contractors involved in its publicity campaign improperly packed public meetings on the plant, shutting out members of the public.
Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin planned to issue a ruling Tuesday morning, but the plaintiffs asked her to wait until the council’s investigation is complete.
Bill Quigley, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Griffin the investigation should be done in about 10 days.
That’s when Assistant City Attorney William Goforth chimed in. “The investigation hasn’t actually started yet,” he said.