We endured the mother of all disasters in 2005, but New Orleans remains a city of little disasters, failures in basic services epitomized by the sinkhole in Canal Street.
Other little disasters are things like boil-water advisories because of aging pipes, the bumps and potholes, the constant catching-up on repairs and fixes for basic services.
By that standard, the Sinkhole-de-Mayo is a success story.
The lake-bound lanes of Canal were closed when a partial collapse was discovered in one of the tunnels under the street. That tunnel was built as part of the 1966 Rivergate Expressway project, the city said.
On April 29, the road collapsed and damaged drains under it.
The City Council approved the $5 million emergency contract for repairs, finished on time and under budget, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office said proudly.
But in celebrating the reopening of the street, Landrieu is all too aware of the infrastructure that the Sinkhole-de-Mayo so vividly represents.
He is hardly alone among big-city mayors across the country dealing with problems of aging bridges, roads and tunnels. The damage done to greater New Orleans during the hurricanes of 2005 was huge, but the slow-motion little disasters of infrastructure have been stalking the Crescent City for a long time.
Nationally and in Louisiana, civil engineers have described the potentially fatal consequences of failing to invest in the physical bones of our communities. We take for granted the convenience of travel, healthy drinking water and all the rest; we sometimes balk at paying taxes to fix the pipes and roads and rails in a timely manner.
The good news for New Orleans is that the sinkhole is repaired before the summer tourist season, but the better news for the long run is that there will be significant new investment in roads and pipes in the city. That is courtesy, if you can use that word, of hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the city’s diligent work to settle its claims with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
City and Sewerage & Water Board officials are preparing to embark on a major effort to rebuild the city’s minor streets and the pipes that run beneath them, a process that is expected to take at least a half-dozen years. The FEMA award comes to about $1.2 billion.
Landrieu has set up a panel of experts to sketch out a street repair plan for the FEMA money that will be focused on rebuilding streets to last. City taxpayers backed a millage renewal in April that will help with these projects.
The not-so-good news is that orange cones and repairs will be a fact of life for several years, but even after the FEMA money is spent, the needs for local taxpayers’ investment in streets and other basics of infrastructure will remain urgent.