A long time coming, but it’s still a bit of a “Wow!” moment for New Orleans. A $2 billion settlement of outstanding claims from 2005 storm damage will provide a huge pot of money for needed streets, sewer and water pipes, and drainage. Mayor Mitch Landrieu hailed the settlement as a historic agreement that represents “the largest infrastructure improvement effort in our city’s history.”
“With today’s announcement, we have now made a major down payment toward fixing our infrastructure involving our interior streets,” he said, flanked by state, local and federal officials at a news conference at the Sewerage & Water Board office. The settlement caps years of negotiations and was prodded forward by a 2012 law passed by Congress after Hurricane Sandy that allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to negotiate lump-sum payments for post-storm reconstruction projects, sidestepping the thorny task of figuring out how much of the damage to facilities was caused by the storm and therefore how much the federal government will pay for each specific project. It is similar in principle to the deal worked out earlier for rebuilding of city schools.
The settlement will provide $1.25 billion beyond the $784.9 million that already has been hashed out between FEMA and the city on subsurface infrastructure improvements. Of the new money, $1.1 billion will go to the city for disaster-eligible road and drainage repairs, while $129 million will go to the Sewerage & Water Board for water, sewer and drainage repairs. The city already has secured about $1 billion from other sources — primarily a projected $750 million from increased sewer and water fees — that, along with Thursday’s settlement, will create what the mayor called a $3 billion down payment on the city’s infrastructure.
It’s been a long wait because of the labyrinth of FEMA regulations and federal law, but the investment will also be a long time developing on the ground. The city now has an obligation to spend it wisely. This is going to involve a decade’s worth of work, officials said. The mayor set up a task force of experts who will draw up a long-term plan for priorities for the spending. It is focused on building quality infrastructure, not just spreading the money around on quick fixes.
“What you are about to see here is generational,” said Cedric Grant, executive director of the Sewerage & Water Board, who has helped guide New Orleans’ infrastructure recovery. “We will be able to do more work over the next half-dozen years than we’ve done in a generation. We’ll put more people to work than we’ve been able to put to work before, and we’ll produce a better product for the people of New Orleans and their quality of life.”
This Christmas season announcement has a long list of Santa’s helpers, not least the Louisiana delegation in Congress — particularly former U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, of New Orleans, and outgoing U.S. Sen. David Vitter, of Metairie — and the administration of President Barack Obama. Recovery was hobbled, in too many cases, by an inadequate federal law that was intended to restrict expenditures on aid. That was reasonable enough to protect the taxpayers’ interests, but the old Stafford Act collapsed under the pressure of the unprecedented impact of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the same year.
A decade later, we’re glad that the hard work of the city, state and federal officials results in a settlement that will build a stronger and more resilient city for generations to come.