Launch Slideshow

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No Time for Café au Lait

No Time for Café au Lait

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    Director Ann Macdonald (inset) implemented mandatory overtime for the parks and parkways department employees who didn't flee New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Here, members of her five-employee central business district crew set out 2900 red Coleus plants in Lee Circle on St. Charles Avenue. Photos: Craig Guillot

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    Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans' historic French Quarter district was as famous for its trash as its good times. Now, solid waste franchisee SDT Waste and Debris Service collects refuse twice daily. Owner Sidney Torres consults with department of sanitation director Veronica White on Decatur Street. Photo: Romney Photography

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    Public works director Robert Mendoza oversees work on Kabel Drive, the first street to be fully reconstructed after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Unlike much of post-Hurricane Katrina's reconstruction, this $4.4 million project was paid for through New Orleans' capital improvement fund. Photo: Craig Guillot

Two years after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the city of New Orleans, the perception of progress is all in the eye of the beholder.

When Katrina struck, a complex system of canals, elevations, and natural barriers decided the fate of entire neighborhoods. Although for the most part the city has rebounded, some neighborhoods have barely been touched since Aug. 29, 2005.

New Orleans' recovery is a tale of two cities where repair and rebuilding sit side-by-side with demise and despair. At times it seems that improvements aren't happening fast enough, but city officials say that—considering the damage it suffered—the recovery is just where it should be. From the mass evacuations, rescues, and casualties to the displacement of more than half the city's residents and efforts to repopulate, New Orleans' human problems have far outweighed its infrastructure concerns.

But long before the dust settled and a sense of normalcy returned, infrastructure managers were laying the groundwork for recovery. Buckled roadways, leaking pipes, and broken water stations, coupled with a loss of labor and funding, provided opportunities for growth as well as a monumental challenge.

Rebuild, Restore, Renew

For the city's public works system, the losses from Hurricane Katrina were catastrophic.

Officials estimate that New Orleans lost 4200 street lights, 458 traffic signals, 20,000 street signs, 3700 parking meters, and 100,000 trees. More than 66,000 catch basins and 26,000 manholes were filled with mud and debris once the flood waters receded. Eighty percent of the city's 1600 miles of roadway were damaged, 14% of which need to be entirely replaced.

Director Robert Mendoza joined the New Orleans Department of Public Works just a few months after Katrina. A native of New Orleans who had worked for the department early in his career as a traffic engineer, Mendoza left his position as a project manager for local road builder Barriere Construction Co. to help lead the city's rebuilding effort.

He immediately began applying for funding and using the media to manage residents' expectations. He's still on television virtually every evening, most often answering questions about the potholes that were a major source of complaints even before Katrina.

“Even if we had all the money in the world dropped on us right now, there aren't enough contractors in the world to get us fixed that fast,” he says. “We're two years into it, and there was always the expectation that this was going to be a 10-year process.”

By the first anniversary of the hurricane, Mendoza's department had restored 90% of the city's lighting and towed 8000 abandoned vehicles. In the fall of 2006, using a $30 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration's Emergency Relief Fund, Mendoza instituted a citywide street and traffic sign restoration program that is nearing completion.

Longer-term issues include roadways and drainage systems. The city has received $182 million in federal assistance and expects an additional $326 million. Other funding has included $40 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for sign and traffic signal repairs. In August 2006, Mendoza launched three projects to repair and clean the city's catch basins and survey the city's drain lines with video cameras. Work is now complete.

With more than half of his workforce gone, Mendoza pushed city hall to buy equipment and technology that would enable his department to maintain the same level of service it provided before Katrina.

To make up for the shortfall in back office personnel, he implemented an Internet-based work-order management system that has enabled the department to tow the same number of abandoned vehicles with one-third the fleet. (Only seven of 20 tow trucks survived the storm, but they reached the end of their service life shortly thereafter.) With WorkTrack and CorrigoConnect, both offered by Corrigo, one dispatcher manages assignments for multiple drivers.

Mendoza bought two Pothole Killer (PK2000) machines, made by Patch Management Inc. of Morrisville, Pa., that require just one driver. While Mendoza still uses four-man patching crews for some spots, the new equipment handles up to 70% of the potholes on New Orleans' streets. By running five to six 10-hour days per week, his crews will repair 100,000 potholes by the end of the year, compared to 29,000 potholes in 2006.

“We can reach those types of efficiencies because we looked at new technologies,” Mendoza says. “It's a tremendous example of how we were able to ramp up without bringing people in.”