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

The board's assets suffered an estimated $447 million in damages. According to a study by engineering firm Black & Veatch Corp., total capital needs over the next 25 years are expected to top $5.7 billion, with immediate needs of $1.9 billion. Of those immediate needs, FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the South East Louisiana Urban Flood Control Program are expected to cover just more than half through grants, leaving an $822 million funding gap.

“We're not where we need to be because there were significant challenges in FEMA recognizing the massive amount of destruction and its financial responsibility associated with the failure of the federal levee system,” says St. Martin.

To cope, the department reduced some services. Its 24-hour call center, for instance, was suspended until July. St. Martin ordered the implementation of online payment options and complaint reporting to help the board function with fewer employees.

A year ago, the board was losing roughly 85 mgd of treated water through leaks and cracks in pipes that had developed during the storm. Until recently, low water pressure impacted the city's abilities to fight fires, which have been a big problem as Katrina left behind thousands of vacant and abandoned homes.

The utility is still operating sewer pump and lift stations on portable pumps and generators, and is anxiously waiting for FEMA to complete an assessment of damages on just one of its 83 stations. The agency is funding a leak detection contract and has recognized the need to repair or replace a large number of water meters that were damaged during the storm or demolition process.

Cleaning Up

With thousands of homes, cars, and businesses destroyed, the task of cleaning up the city seemed impossible.

Even though the sanitation department immediately outsourced debris removal, it soon became clear to director Veronica White that more help was necessary. FEMA contracted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which divided the city into north and south sectors and deployed more than 600 crews. Although debris removal was expected to take five years, White says the task is “99% complete.”

“I was adamant about cutting down that time,” she says. “We've been working seven days a week from sunrise to sunset.”

From the same rubble, opportunities for enhanced efficiencies emerged.

Pre-Katrina, the city's entire waste removal was serviced by one company: Waste Management. When it was time to renew the contract, White divided the city into three sectors and awarded contracts to three separate vendors. She ordered more frequent pickups and semi-automated service on some routes.

“I put a lot of accountability in the contract specs,” she says. “Breaking the city up created more productivity and the city was able to get more for its money. Citizens can see that because the city is cleaner.”

Almost 18 million cu. yds. of debris have been removed from New Orleans streets, and the 7000 homes awaiting demolition will create another 12 million cu. yds. Sixty percent of the debris—including white goods, e-waste, and household hazardous waste—was recycled. Vegetation waste was sent south of the city to help restore Louisiana's eroding coast.

Beyond Katrina

The fate of New Orleans' infrastructure is not just a question of funding and fixing, but also of the city's quality of life. No matter how much managers pay to attract employees, they can't control the myriad personal problems and complexities of life in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Yet they're rebuilding every day.

Each month brings another accomplishment that shows they not only will restore the city's infrastructure to its pre-storm state, but that they're improving it along the way. And if history and weather trends are correct, Hurricane Katrina will not be the last test of their leadership capabilities.

— Guillot is a New Orleans-based freelance writer and photographer whose work has also appeared in the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Bankrate.com, and Nationalgeographic.com.