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.”

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.

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,, and