New Orleans: Coming Back, Moving Forward

500-yr_storm“Straight roads do not make skillful drivers.”

The task of the people now working for Cedric Grant, Executive Director, since July, 2014, of the Sewage and Water Board of New Orleans, has been anything but a straight road over the past ten years as they initiated and moved along the recovery of their city’s water, sewage, drainage and power systems devastated by Katrina.

Grant, a former deputy of Mayor Mitch Landrieu, used the ‘straight roads’ analogy on August 29 in releasing a book-length report entitled ‘Katrina 10’ — subtitled ‘Progress . . . Devastation to Recovery to Restoration to Rebuilding’. The book outlines, in 149 pages, what’s been, is being and will be done with the close to $20 billion being dedicated to not simply restoring but significantly improving the city and its ability to withstand — heaven help us — storms even greater than Katrina.

The storm-initiated damage resulted primarily as a result of failed levies intended (but poorly designed) to protect the partly-below-sea-level city from just the kind of massive overflows it suffered on August 29, 2005.

New Orleans lost close to two thousand people, something like a million homes and businesses dwellings, and massive damage to many of those that remained standing. Roughly a quarter of the pre-Katrina population never returned from places to which they were evacuated or fled. On August 28, 2005, nearly 480,000 people lived in the city. Today, there are fewer than 370,000 residents — and many of them remain unable to return to storm-damaged and still unrepaired homes.

The vast majority of the mountain of 10-year-anniversary coverage on the internet and in print has focused, to a certain degree logically, on the human aspects of the tragedies — the initial one and the ongoing smaller ones affecting areas of the city and their residents. How communities have, to one degree or another, moved on — some better off, some not. How individuals have, too. Or not: Many remain homeless; many others who’d like to still be in the city they consider ‘home’ remain elsewhere, more than likely never to return.

Depending on your perspective, it’s either as, or more, important to explore how the city’s infrastructure — the publicly-funded physical elements — as well as it’s ‘corporate culture’ — the far-less-obviously-corrupt way its government operates — and its ‘future awareness’ have changed and will continue to.

To put all that in perspective, there’s this: Two years ago, The Times-Picayune (often abbreviated, like it’s website to NOLA, a common ‘nickname’ for its city) cited a fascinating statistic from a collection recently released by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, which has steadily tracked recovery indicators since shortly after the storm. Its ‘New Orleans Index at 8’ report, detailing progress, and lack of it, in that eight-year interval, noting that, as the Times-Picayune put it, “The New Orleans metro has weathered the Great Recession impressively; As of 2012, it had recovered all its recession-era losses and reached 1 percent above its 2008 employment level while the nation remained 2 percent below its 2008 job level.”

The Times-Picayune also noted at that time, “The New Orleans area is showing encouraging signs that it might be pulling off a rare reversal of a once-entrenched economic decline.”

That, in a nutshell, points to how steadily New Orleans’ labor- and construction-intensive efforts carried on even as both those indicators faltered in the nation as a whole.

‘Katrina 10’ (see paragraph 3, above) includes details on “a new plan to coordinate infrastructure management, commitment to reform,the ongoing rehabilitation of the sewage collection system, the major rebuilding of the massive drainage system and improvements to the water system and the Board’s own power plant.”

That plan was announced in a press release in June of this year. It then was said that, the Sewerage & Water Board had joined with The Coastal Protection & Restoration Authority of Louisiana, the City of New Orleans, agencies across the metropolitan area and the US Corps of Engineers — which is responsible for levy construction and support — in “a coordinated, region-wide preparation effort . . to ensure that coordination of operations and communications between [local agencies and the Corps of Engineers] were in place and tested.”

Specific storm-anticipation preparation efforts have included

• Emergency contracts for prestaged generators at key facilities;

• Emergency response boats and communication equipment staged at various Drainage Pumping Stations;

• Arrangements for an Emergency Operation Center at the Main Water Plant to coordinate the S&WB’s response to emergency events;

• Providing employees with placards for response and reentry;

• Giving employees a 1-800 call-in number to report their location in the event they have evacuated;

• Building emergency protective Tiger Dams to protect against flooding at the Main Water Plant Power House; and

• Establishment of a Mobile Command Post to be staged in Baton Rouge as an alternate Emergency Operations Center.

‘Katrina 8,’ says, “Management and staff [are] confident that their team of experts [is] well prepared and able to work internally with our own forces and externally with the City’s overall Office of Emergency Preparedness Command Center, Corps of Engineers, levee districts and [with] adjacent parishes.” It also notes that employees who experienced Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Isaac “were invaluable resources” as the new preparedness plan was put together.

Even as that press release was distributed, Corps’ contractors were hard at work on what undoubtedly will be the most important infrastructure effort ever undertaken anywhere, to date, to guard against hurricane damage.

The “current projects” tab on S&WB’s web site offers details of, among other things, the post-Katrina-created Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System (HSDRRS) for southeast Louisiana, a sizable chunk of which is known as the Permanent Canal Closures & Pumps (PCCP). It “will provide a permanent and more sustainable measure for reducing the risk of a 100-year level storm surge entering [three] outfall canals,” the web site says. That project is due to be completed, at a cost of something like $615 million, in 2017, when the PCCP replaces temporary barriers erected in 2006.

(This photo shows another similarly-massive part of the new flood control system — so-called Inner Harbor Navigation Canal Surge Barrier. At lower right, U.S. Senator David Vitter, is poking his head through one of the many openings that line the entire length of the that structure. [Photo: Chris Granger, | The Times-Picayune].)

An NPR story on Aug. 28 looked at some of the details of the largest single piece of this flood control project::

First, it quoted Susan Maclay, president of Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority — West — one of two state-created agencies that, since Katrina, have been charged with consolidating and improving flood control. “The West Bank is astronomically safer; There is no comparison since before Katrina and today,” she said.

Next, the story talked about “A giant concrete and steel structure called the West Closure Complex [that is] one of the engineering marvels of the new [flood control] system. During a flood event, a water gate nearly as long as a football field slowly shuts and 11 behemoth diesel engines kick on to pump water out of Jefferson Parish.

“This structure cost approximately $1.1 billion,” Maclay was said to have boasted. “It consists of the largest pump station in the world. It can fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in three seconds.” (The photos on this page shows renderings of three new pump stations in New Orleans.)

It and the rest of the new flood protection system are expected to render New Orleans virtually impervious from storms with winds up to more than 200 miles per hour as well as the storm surges they generate.

Meanwhile, at considerably less cost, the populace of the city has so strongly said ‘enough is enough’ where rampart public corruption is concerned. Te people’s outrage at (corrupt) ‘business as usual’ in the years leading up to Katrina has, since then, resulted in the conviction of no fewer that 17 politicians being convicted on charges of one or another kind of corruption in office. The 17th was former NOLA Mayor Ray Nagin, who was sentenced in 2014 to ten years in federal prison after being convicted on  “20 counts including bribery, conspiracy and money laundering stemming from his two terms as mayor, including the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005,” as Fox News reported.

A lot of the people-focused media coverage of Katrina+plus+ten has mentioned — sometimes almost in passing, because the fact has long been part of the city’s reputation — how ‘politics’, particularly the less than savory kind, contributed to the climate causing minority citizens of the city to be denied opportunities for better jobs, reasonable housing and, by the way, fair treatment by the police and other officials with whom they come in contact; How residents of primarily-Black areas were, after being hardest-hit by Katrina, made to wait longest before being rescued, and then given the kind of help and support they deserved.

Now, much as some of those neighborhoods have changed (The New York Times has provided a detailed look at that), the city’s ‘corporate culture’ has, too, with public officials have come to be, if not as honest and straight-forward as they should be, at least superficially for the people, as they are serving by — at the will of — the people.

While a lot was lot, a lot has been gained in NOLA since August 29, 2005. Perspective is high on the list of ‘gains’: Both ‘city fathers; and citizens have come to accept — many of the citizens, anyway — that their city will never see, in its good and less good aspects, July 2005 again.

New Orleans is in some ways worse off, and in many ways gaining, from Katrina — continuing to gain: New blood, new spirit has come to town; Business start-ups, and people aiming to make them happen and succeed, have invested themselves, and their money, into a ‘new world’.

The past is; The future’s brighter.