New Orleans officials hope to use BP money to help fund huge disaster mitigation plan _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- The Milne Boys Home site is just one of several places in New Orleans which will benefit from the BP oil spill settlement.

City officials hope to use New Orleans’ share of a settlement stemming from the Deepwater Horizon disaster to help fund a series of coastal restoration projects — part of a half-billion-dollar package of initiatives they have proposed in an effort to secure hundreds of millions in grant money from the federal government.

The wide-ranging plan, which includes some projects that already are underway, is spelled out in the city’s application to the National Disaster Resiliency Competition, a federal grant program that will award a total of $1 billion to communities across the country that are working to improve their ability to respond to disasters.

The New Orleans application totals about $532 million, more than half of which officials hope would come from the competitive federal grant. The BP money, FEMA grants and funds from the Sewerage & Water Board and the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority would make up the city’s share of the package.

Over the summer, New Orleans accepted a $45 million settlement with BP as part of a wide-ranging agreement intended to compensate governments for economic impacts from the 2010 oil spill. After lawyers’ fees were taken out, the city was left with about $36 million.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has insisted the money should be spent on coastal restoration and projects included in the city’s Resiliency Plan, though some City Council members have suggested some money could go toward other needs such as road repairs.

New Orleans is one of 40 communities in the grant competition; a final decision on the money is expected in January. There’s no specific plan for finding the money to carry out the laundry list of ideas if the city does not win the competition, Chief Resiliency Officer Jeff Hebert said.

The Jefferson Parish Council voted last week to spend about $15 million of the money it will receive from the settlement on coastal restoration and to divvy up its remaining $20 million among the four noncoastal council districts.

St. Tammany Parish has not decided how it will spend its money, but it could use it for its own application for a federal resiliency grant.

The city’s proposal ties in with both the Resiliency Plan released over the summer and with some aspects of the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan, an ambitious proposal to focus on more natural methods of dealing with water than the traditional strategy of pumping it out of the city.

The proposed projects range from minor improvements to individual homes to large public works and restoration projects aimed at improving the area’s flood protection.

Generally, the plan is broken into four parts: urban water, community adaptation, reliable energy and coastal restoration.

The city qualified to apply for the grant because of damage incurred during Hurricane Isaac, and the projects listed in the application are generally connected to problems that occurred during that 2012 storm.

The urban water portion, expected to cost about $293 million, would focus on sites that can be used for water storage during storms to take pressure off the city’s drainage system and reduce flooding, according to the application. Three sites larger than 25 acres would be upgraded in the Gentilly area, which would be designated a “resiliency district”: the Mirabeau Water Gardens, City Park and a wetlands area between Dillard University and the London Avenue Canal.

Other areas of Gentilly would have their neutral grounds upgraded with canals or with new vegetation and permeable sidewalks aimed at allowing water to soak into the ground. The Milne Boys Home site on Franklin Avenue also would be targeted for stormwater retention improvements.

The grant application also proposes spending about $7 million to help residents make their homes more capable of handling storms and, potentially, reducing flooding. That plan aims to reach 1,000 low-income residents, according to the application.

“The most vulnerable areas to flooding in our city are also where our most vulnerable citizens are,” Hebert said.

To improve energy reliability, the city is proposing the creation of two “microgrids,” small areas of government buildings and other facilities that would be able to generate their own power if electricity is lost for a lengthy period, as happened after Isaac. City officials are still looking at how they would generate power for those microgrids, Hebert said.

New Orleans has wrapped some ongoing projects into its application, including a $170 million upgrade to the Sewerage & Water Board’s power plant to improve its ability to operate without external power.

Overall, energy improvements would amount to about $185 million.

The rest of the money would go toward providing the city’s share of a variety of coastal restoration projects being undertaken by the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, including repairing the land bridge to Slidell, restoring Bayou Bienvenue and wetlands near the Lower 9th Ward and creating marshes east of the city. The BP money would be earmarked for those projects, according to the grant application.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.