FEMA has granted an extension for the city of New Orleans to finish spending $1.66 billion in post-Hurricane Katrina disaster funding for roadwork and drainage projects known as the Joint Infrastructure Recovery Request (JIRR) program.
The city has only spent a fraction of that funding so far, and earlier this year officials conceded that it wouldn’t be able to spend it all before the original August 2023 deadline. That would mean leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table if FEMA refused to grant an extension. That revelation led the state’s congressional delegation to intervene and urge FEMA to give the city more time.
Now that expiration date has been pushed back by a year until 2024, the city’s Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Infrastructure Joe Threat said on Wednesday.
“It gives us some time, we’ll take as much as we can get,” Threat told The Lens.
Threat said that the 2024 deadline extension request wasn’t submitted by New Orleans. He said it was submitted by another parish, which he said he believed came from Baton Rouge. Cantrell’s office didn’t respond to requests for clarification over who submitted the request. But Threat said the extension would apply to all FEMA Katrina disaster funding, including New Orleans’ JIRR program.
“It applies to us, everyone with Katrina disaster funds,” Threat said.
The one-year extension won’t be enough for the city to complete its current plan, which is to spend all the money by 2026 when Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s tenure ends. Threat said that the city has already put in a request to extend the deadline further into 2025. He said the city should get an answer in roughly two weeks.
“As soon as that comes down, man, I’ll be a happy camper,” Threat said.
He added that as the city launched new projects with timelines stretching into 2026, the city would submit yet another extension request to FEMA.
The JIRR program is responsible for the majority of the street work that residents have seen across the city in recent years. It’s a roughly $2.4 billion program mostly made up of Katrina FEMA funding. After years of squabbling over how much New Orleans should get in Katrina aid, the city signed a settlement with FEMA in 2015 that gave $2 billion to the city and Sewerage and Water Board to fix streets and underground drainage infrastructure.
By the time that settlement was reached, the city had already spent some of the FEMA funds, leaving $1.66 billion left to create the foundation of the JIRR program. That was combined with other funding sources to make up the full $2.4 billion program.
The city, however, has had a hard time actually spending all that money. Data obtained by The Lens from FEMA showed that as of March of this year, the city and Sewerage and Water Board had only spent roughly $375 million, or roughly 23 percent of the total $1.66 billion in expiring funds.
A Wednesday presentation from the Department of Public Works claimed that the entire $2.4 billion JIRR program was “halfway complete.” Cantrell’s office didn’t respond to questions regarding the exact breakdown of how much of the FEMA funding had been spent.
The city’s rush to spend the money has also caused construction headaches for residents throughout New Orleans, as the city has struggled to find and manage contractors to complete the backlog of work.
Cantrell’s administration has argued that it was put in a tough position by former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. It’s claimed that by the time Cantrell took office in May 2018, the city only had $10 million worth of JIRR projects under way.
Threat took over his current position earlier this year as the JIRR program was under heightened public scrutiny over the construction delays and the upcoming FEMA deadline. He’s made a number of changes to how the program functions to speed up the pace and keep contractors accountable to their contract obligations and the needs of neighbors. Council members told Threat during a Wednesday budget hearing that they had noticed improvements.
But the program is still facing challenges. Threat on Wednesday highlighted how the construction industry as a whole has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, supply chain disruptions, rising material costs and labor shortages. A presentation by the Capital Projects Administration on Wednesday said that project bids were coming in at an average of 88 percent over budget.
But Threat remained optimistic about the program’s future, saying that the project, once completed, was a game changer for New Orleans infrastructure.