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Billions More Needed to Ensure Future Safety

Mon February 13, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Maybelle G. Cagle

In a less extreme event, Louisiana’s levee board would have been stuck with the bill for repairing the damaged flood-control devices.

But because of the unprecedented damage and impact to local governments, the estimated $249 million in repairs will be entirely funded by the federal government under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ emergency response authority.

“In light of the devastation to the city of New Orleans, this decision will relieve the burden from the local sponsors of providing funding and allow us to move expeditiously toward restoring pre-storm level of protection,” said John Paul Woodley Jr., assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works.

But now, how the levees are managed — and ultimately, who make decisions about how to better protect their population from another flood — could drastically change.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco called a second special legislative session to deal with hurricane recovery, which began Feb. 6 and was expected to last 12 days.

Louisiana legislators begin their regular session in March.

Two issues were expected to be considered at the latest special session to help with recovery. One is to create a single levee board for the state as opposed to parish and local boards. The second is to establish the Louisiana Recovery Agency by state law. It currently exists by Executive Order.

“In this call for a special legislative session, I have put forth a clear path for continued recovery that will build upon the progress made during the last session. We must consolidate our levee boards and this will be the centerpiece legislation for the session,” said Blanco in a statement.

Blanco’s call for a special session comes as the state looks forward to getting billions of dollars worth of aid from the federal government. Most notably, a $29 billion appropriation was approved by Congress in December to aid hurricane ravaged states like Louisiana and Mississippi.

The $29 billion appropriation is part of an $85 billion pledge the Bush Administration has promised for hurricane recovery.

Efforts to obtain a specific breakdown of the funds for Louisiana were unsuccessful. Some of the definite appropriations, however, are: $2.9 billion appropriation for levee improvements and $6.2 billion Community Development Block Grants.

Rebuilding the New Orleans levees is moving forward and should be completed by June, in time for the start of hurricane season, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Susan Jackson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans District said Congress, “appropriated funds necessary to rebuild and raise levees back to design grade.”

Jackson added, “In addition, Congress appropriated funds for accelerating the completion of the New Orleans to Venice, the Lake Pontchartrain and vicinity, the West Bank in the vicinity of New Orleans, the Grand Isle and the Larose to Golden Meadow hurricane projects as well as the Southeast Louisiana (SELA) Urban Flood Control Project. These funds will ensure that all areas within those projects have design-level protection and all drainage improvements initially approved under SELA. We believe this work can be substantially complete by September 2007.

“The funds appropriated by Congress will go a long way toward achieving the plan announced by the White House. The job will require new authorities and additional appropriations for at least four more projects — permanent pumps and closures for New Orleans’ three outfall drainage canals, levee armoring and restoration of wetlands. We believe the administration will work with Congress to seek authorization and funding for these items,” Jackson said.

The Corps recently announced the award of several levee-related contracts including:

• $27.8 million to Boh Brothers Construction Co., New Orleans’ largest construction company, for the 17th Street Canal, interim gated closure structure;

• London Avenue Canal, Interim Gated Closure Structure, M.R. Pittman Group, Harahan, LA, $25.5 million;

• MWI Corporation, Deerfield Beach, FL, $26.6 million, temporary pumps.

“We are proud of our employees for all the hard work they put in while going through personal struggles and hardship. We continue to look forward to our role in rebuilding this great city, New Orleans,” said Robert S. Boh, president of the New Orleans based Boh Brothers, on the company’s Web site.

Boh Brothers, a member of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association and the Associated General Contractors in Louisiana, began mobilizing equipment and personnel to help repair levees in New Orleans even before it obtained a written contract from the Army Corps of Engineers.

The company successfully installed a sheet pile wall across the 17th Street Canal, which stopped the water that was spilling into New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain and flooding lowest lying areas.

Boh recently completed repair work on Phase 1 of the key I-10 bridge, connecting New Orleans with practically everything east of the city, two weeks ahead of schedule. The company received widespread praise for completing the work early and a $1.1 million bonus.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been accepting bids for 15 contracts among small and minority-owned businesses registered with the Small Business Administration. FEMA expected to award the contracts by early February.

“Local, small and minority-owned businesses are playing a critical role in rebuilding the Gulf Coast,” said acting FEMA Director David Paulison in a news release.

He added, “Getting local businesses more heavily involved in the long-term recovery efforts will also contribute to the overall economic recovery of the region.”

Derrell Cahoon, CEO of the Louisiana Associated General Contractors and the state chapter of American Road & Transportation Builders in Baton Rouge, said Louisiana said its members have a heavy presence in the road to recovery.

“In New Orleans, they have moved the equivalent of debris from 10 World Trade Centers,” said Cahoon. He noted at least that amount of debris still needs to be removed in New Orleans.

Cahoon said four or five multinational contractors have secured $500 million contracts from the government.

“As a consequence, some of our people have had the opportunity to be subcontractors under that arrangement,” he added.

He initially believed it would take seven years to rebuild Louisiana, but “I’m being told it’s optimistic.”

At least $6 billion will be needed to rebuild roads, state building and hospitals. Some of the roadwork has already started.

“It’s going to take time to rebuild buildings and populations,” said Cahoon. “I think our membership will get enough work. If you’re on the ground and have the workforce native to the area, you should be competitive.”

Thus far, said Cahoon, many of his members report “they haven’t seen the first new job come out since Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Katrina. They’ve been doing repair work.”

Cahoon said Rep. Richard Baker of Louisiana proposed a Louisiana Recovery Corporation that would use $30 billion from U.S. Treasury Bonds and offer to property owners a piece of the equity they had in their homes before Katrina.

The property, which would be cleaned up, would then be turned into redeveloped areas. However, the plan has met opposition in Washington.

Donald E. Powell, federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding, said in a letter to the Washington Post Feb. 2 that “while we share the congressman’s goals, there are several reasons why we oppose this legislation. Those reasons are that the LRC is not a long term plan, that it would have weak congressional oversight and, thus, little accountability, increasing the potential for waste and inefficiency and setting up a new federal agency requires time and staff, incurring administrative costs and other inefficiencies.

“There is a better, more direct way to assist homeowners. The federal government has allocated $24.5 billion to Louisiana for housing — 67 percent of total federal housing funds available for the Gulf Coast region,” said Powell.

Powell said Louisiana could use the Community Development Block Grant funds ($6.2 billion) to compensate all uninsured homeowners outside the flood plain and still have upward of $5 billion to address other housing and infrastructure needs.

“If, after spending all the federal funds allocated, there are remaining unmet needs, we will work with Congress to help ensure the resources are there,” Powell said.

The Louisiana Recovery Authority has announced it will continue to work with Baker and the entire delegation to pass the Baker Bill despite opposition. According to the LRA, the state had hoped to use some of the community development funds for infrastructure and economic development.

Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) has received an additional $75 million in federal emergency highway funds and another $1.048 billion will soon be on its way to help the state’s hurricane recovery efforts.

“To date, DOTD has received $100 million in Federal Highway Emergency Relief Funds and $15 million in FEMA public assistance funds,” said spokeswoman Lindsay Ruiz de Chavez.

She said all roadways that were damaged in southwest Louisiana have been reopened. Still to be open are U.S. 90 at the Chef Pass Bridge and LA 23 in Sunrise.

DOTD Secretary Johnny Bradberry said the total cost for replacing and repairing roads and bridges because of the hurricane is about $1.1 billion. That doesn’t include damage to ports, navigational systems, airports, transit systems or rail lines.

However, Bradberry said the total he mentioned doesn’t include needed projects to protect the area from future events, such as elevating I-10/I-610 in the New Orleans area, widening the interstates in south Louisiana, building and improving hurricane evacuation routes such as I-49 South, LA 1 and a Houma-Thibodaux connector to I-20. He also noted the current monies don’t include funds to help the Baton Rouge, Hammond and Lafayette areas cope with traffic that resulted from a 30 to 40 percent increase in population because of the evacuations. The price tag for these projects is estimated at $10.6 billion.

“We are working very closely with the Federal Highway Administration and FEMA to secure 100 percent financing on as much of this work as possible,” Bradberry said.

In a related matter, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Feb. 2 it will award Louisiana $863 million in additional transportation funds.

“The money will be used to repair roads and bridges damaged by the hurricanes, to pick up and dispose of debris, to fix and replace traffic signals in the affected areas and to build a new elevated six lane ’twin-span’ bridge. Some $629 million of the total is designated for a new bridge between Slidell and New Orleans, and bids will be taken in the spring,” Bradberry said. CEG

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