The New Orleans City Council on Thursday signed off on a $26 million plan to clean and fix thousands of catch basins, provide an early warning system for underpass flooding, conduct an analysis of the problems that led up to the July 22 and Aug. 5 floods and set money aside in case of a disaster.
The key element of the plan, put forward by Mayor Mitch Landrieu's office, calls for spending $22 million on cleaning and repairing roughly 15,000 of the city’s 65,000 catch basins over the next 120 days, aiming to remove obstructions that keep water from flowing into the drainage system.
The plan was approved unanimously at a council meeting that began with heated calls from residents for a federal investigation into the flooding, which may have been exacerbated by clogged catch basins and broken equipment at the Sewerage & Water Board.
Council members said they have lost faith in the agency's board, declining to appoint one new member or extend the term of a second. That may leave the board in a precarious position, since it is down several members and has barely enough to make the quorum required to take any actions.
The catch basin project will be paid for partially with about $14.2 million the city already had set aside and another $7.8 million that was approved Thursday.
All the work will be documented with photos, and crews will assess whether there are more serious problems that need major repairs.
Besides $7 million just to clean the catch basins the rest of this year, repairs to the basins and the drainage lines they feed will be handled in a separate $13 million contract. That work is expected to take about a year to complete.
The catch basin repairs will start with those that have prompted calls to the city's 311 hotline and those in areas that flooded over the past month, interim Public Works Director Dani Galloway said. From there, crews will move onto other high-priority areas such as evacuation routes and then to catch basins near schools and playgrounds.
Another $350,000 will go toward buying another vacuum truck to clean out debris, and about $1.7 million will be spent on inspecting the work that's been done.
The city plans to use a fast-track bidding process to select a contractor, allowing only a few days for bids to be submitted.
That idea, along with the fact that the Public Works Department has already conducted a conference call with a handful of potential firms, drew objections from some council members.
“I don’t like picking and choosing who you’re sending stuff to,” Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey said, expressing worry that firms designated as historically disadvantaged, mainly those owned by women and minorities, might be left out. Agency officials said that concern will be taken into account.
The expectation is that local firms will partner to bid on the cleaning contract, since the scope of the work is likely beyond the capacity of any one company.
The council on Thursday also approved about $650,000 to install systems that will warn of flooding at low-lying underpasses and $500,000 to hire a firm that will assess exactly what went wrong with the drainage system during the recent floods.
Councilman Jason Williams called for a forensic audit to determine how FEMA money provided to the Sewerage & Water Board since Hurricane Katrina has been spent, a step that won't be part of the mayor's promised "after-action" analysis.
The council also approved setting aside $3 million to deal with any disasters that may crop up while the city's drainage system is still below capacity.
In total, 16 of the system’s 120 pumps remain offline and only one turbine at the S&WB’s power plant is capable of producing the type of electricity used by about half the pumps. Generators have been brought in, though they do not appear to be online yet, and two of the three broken turbines are likely to be out of service until September.
The extent of the maintenance problems, as well as misleading statements from S&WB officials during and immediately after the flooding, have severely damaged the agency's credibility.
Council members went as far as bringing in a court reporter to provide a transcript of Thursday's discussion, a rare step meant to ensure administration members could be held to their word.
In a separate development, state Sen. J.P. Morrell said he was open to introducing a bill that would reserve a seat on the agency's board for a member of the council.
That would partially reverse a set of changes orchestrated by Landrieu in 2013, which removed council members from the board and imposed new professional requirements on most nominees.
Morrell himself sponsored the original state legislation that made Landrieu's reforms possible. So did state Rep. Walt Leger and former Rep. Jared Brossett, now a council member.
Morrell said that restoring a council member to the utility's governing board will need the support of council members themselves if it's going to go anywhere. They would first have to pursue an amendment to the city's charter, which would need voter approval.
Still, Morrell said council members should be willing to get more involved in sorting out the agency's problems if they are going to hurl criticism at others.
“I see the grandstanding at these council meetings, about how no one knew anything," he said. "They should have the opportunity to go on the Sewerage & Water Board."
Council members Thursday put off decisions on appointing or reappointing board members even though the board has barely enough members to take any actions due to resignations over the course of the year.
Williams, who initially put those appointments on Thursday’s agenda, said during the meeting he didn’t want to give the impression by approving them that the council was “tacitly approving the status quo,” something that other council members agreed with as they suggested the board itself had failed to provide oversight to the agency.
“Not one member of the Sewerage & Water Board except for the mayor have stepped up and said anything to the public,” Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell said. Calling for the appointments to be deferred, she added, "We need to have a better process of who's being appointed.”
Councilwoman Stacy Head, however, pushed for the appointments, saying that not approving them will put the board in a precarious position and could leave it unable to take steps needed to deal with the problems or else leave those decisions entirely in the hands of Landrieu.
While saying she doesn’t like the rules governing the appointment process, Head added, “I think it’s disingenuous of us to castigate people.”