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

Over at the Department of Parks and Parkways, director Ann Macdonald (see above) also has changed the way she does business.

She's outsourced maintenance of one-quarter of the city's 2000 acres of right of way. And though she's increased mowing from five to seven days a week, crews still have difficulty keeping on top of growth. Her solution: spray parkways with a diluted formula of Monsanto's Roundup, which allows for a three-week cutting cycle by slowing growth. At $34 an acre it isn't cheap, but it prevents the grass from growing knee-high.

“It's not something we're proud of, but it's simple economics,” she says.

Labor In Short Supply

New Orleans' labor shortage and living conditions have been a consistent challenge for Mendoza, Macdonald, and other infrastructure managers. The city nearly emptied out during Hurricane Katrina and, two years later, only 266,000 of its original 455,000 residents have returned.

From laborers to the mayor, just about everyone lost his home.

Marcia St. Martin, executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board (S&WB), lost her home and slept at a plant for a month; parks & parkways' Macdonald didn't get back into her home until May 2006; and Mendoza, who had 7 feet of water in his home, is still rebuilding.

“Eighty percent of our people lost their homes,” says St. Martin. “We still have several hundred employees living in trailers at two sites at the water purification plants.”

Whether they're temporarily renting, living in a trailer, or staying with friends and family, many residents are still trying to piece their lives together. “Recovery” requires running a complex gauntlet of insurance settlements, readjustments, frequent moves, and financial nightmares.

The Road Home, a program designed by the Louisiana Recovery Authority to bridge the financial gap between insurance payments and homeowners' savings, has dispersed money to only 20% of 150,000 applicants and faces a $5 billion shortfall.

It doesn't help that the city's cost of living has increased more in the past two years than it has in the past two decades. Rents are up as much as 35%, and homeowners insurance has doubled and even tripled. Many working-class residents left and simply never returned.

“Most of our people just never came back,” says Veronica White, sanitation department director. “Whatever bus they got on, I guess they just didn't have the means or desire to come back. I don't know where half of them are; most just moved on.”

Both the public works department and S&WB lost half of their professional engineers and experienced employees. While the board is functioning, some areas are grossly understaffed. It's seeking engineers as well as employees for the meter reading department and operators for purification and treatment plants.

“We're doing a lot of outsourcing that we've never done before,” says St. Martin.

“The labor market in New Orleans is critical right now. Every industry and business in the area is looking for people.”

Over at public works, Mendoza has tried to entice laborers by increasing starting pay from $7 to $8.50 an hour, but it's not enough.

“One of the problems is that we weren't paying our people enough to begin with,” he says. “In the construction industry right now, especially in this market, these pay rates just aren't going to attract anyone.”

Annual salaries at the S&WB: $18,932 for meter readers, $18,467 for utility plant workers, and $16,108 for maintenance workers. The public works department pays $34,368 for supervisors and $24,271 for engineering technicians.

Water Woes

The S&WB, which expects 2007 revenues to be only 60% of 2005's, is having the most difficulty wrangling assistance from federal, state, and local agencies.

Responsible for providing drinking water and handling wastewater and drainage, the board is divided into east bank and west bank systems serving New Orleans on both sides of the Mississippi River. While the west bank facilities sustained minor damage and continued operations immediately after the hurricane, the east bank pump stations sat in saltwater for days.