The New Orleans City Council is urging Mayor LaToya Cantrell to act quickly to improve the city’s roughly $2 billion roadwork program, and convince FEMA to extend the August 2023 deadline to spend the Hurricane Katrina relief funds that make up the majority of the program.
The council made those requests by passing a non-binding resolution on Thursday. The vote comes a week after The Lens reported that the city has spent less than half of the Katrina roadwork funds with only 15 months left before the FEMA deadline. That leaves well over $1 billion to spend by August 2023, at which time the remaining funds will be clawed back by the federal government unless FEMA chooses to grant an extension.
“It’s use it or lose it by August 2023,” Councilwoman Lesli Harris told The Lens Thursday. “And at the pace these projects are going, they’re not going to be finished.”
In recent months, both Cantrell administration officials and the city’s contractors have publicly expressed concerns about their ability to spend all the money in time, and the uncertainty over whether FEMA will grant an extension. Thursday’s vote shows that concern is shared by the council.
“Certainly not all the work is going to be done by August 2023,” Councilman Joe Giarrusso told The Lens this week. “I just don’t see how it’s physically possible.”
The Lens also reported last week that the program — known as the Joint Infrastructure Recovery Request (JIRR) program — is facing scrutiny from local and federal watchdog agencies.
New Orleans Inspector General Ed Michel confirmed his office will soon issue a report on the program. And records obtained by The Lens show that a former city employee was interviewed by an investigator from FEMA’s Fraud Prevention & Investigations Branch, a special agent from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General and the chief of criminal investigations for Michel’s office.
In addition to securing a FEMA extension, Thursday’s council resolution urges Cantrell to make changes to the program and make it more efficient. It specifically asks her administration to consider program changes suggested in a city-commissioned 2019 report written by engineering firm CSRS.
The report found serious issues in how it was being managed, including flawed processes and protocols that were “not being followed or enforced faithfully.” It also found that the city’s contractors were highly skeptical of the city’s ability to finish the projects on time.
“Drastic adjustments are needed immediately in order to address the challenges of a program of this magnitude,” the report said.
It’s unclear how many of the report’s numerous recommendations were actually adopted. Giarrusso said he thinks the city largely ignored it.
“Our view is that it basically got shelved,” Giarrusso told The Lens. “It doesn’t seem like much of it was implemented.”
“Just walk the streets, you can see best practices aren’t being implemented,” Harris told The Lens.
Making substantive improvements to the program will not only make it more efficient, but could also give FEMA a reason to support an extension request, council members suggested.
“We want you to know we’re fighting to come up with a better system,” Councilman Oliver Thomas said during the meeting.
The JIRR program
The JIRR program was made possible by a 2015 settlement between the city and FEMA that wrapped up years of haggling over how much the city should get to repair the underground pipes and streets damaged after Hurricane Katrina. In total, the city was awarded just over $2 billion.
Cantrell’s office told The Lens last week that some of that $2 billion had already been committed to projects prior to the completion of the settlement, leaving a total of $1.66 billion to create the foundation of the JIRR program. That money was combined with a few other local and federal sources to make up the city’s $2.3 billion JIRR program.
The money wasn’t enough to cover the entire backlog of the city’s necessary street repairs — estimated at the time to be $9.3 billion — but it was a start.
When he announced the settlement, then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu lauded it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a dent in the city’s backlog of dilapidated streets. But the program has since become the subject of consistent issues and complaints from residents and contractors.
Just weeks before Landrieu left office, JIRR contractors issued an open letter criticizing the city for the program’s slow pace of progress. When Cantrell took the baton from Landrieu in May 2018, only $10 million worth of JIRR projects were underway, according to the Cantrell administration.
Giarrusso acknowledged that the Cantrell administration has made changes and improvements to the program since taking office, and that the pace of progress is significantly better than under Landrieu.
But he said the program clearly still needed to be better, and that the CSRS report should be the basis for those improvements. He said implementing best practices becomes all the more important as the city tries to convince FEMA to grant an extension.
“The Cantrell administration has definitely made progress in that they’ve done more work than was done in the past,” he told The Lens. “And they deserve credit for that. But now the question is how do we make it more efficient and seamless. And I think that would be the progress FEMA is really looking for.”
As Giarrusso noted, the Cantrell administration’s attempts to ramp up the pace of construction have come with their own problems. Over the last year, there have been widespread resident complaints about the number of open and seemingly stagnant worksites around the city.
“Clearly we need a new model because the current model isn’t working and we’re never going to be able to spend the money in the appropriate time,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said.