New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell held a news conference on Tuesday (May 22) to level with the public about the city’s flood risk and to outline how her administration is trying to “unclog” funding sources to mitigate risk.
Cantrell said she called the news conference after residents expressed anxiety over widespread street flooding after a torrential rainstorm dumped several inches of water on the city Friday within a matter of hours. The storm overwhelmed the city’s drainage capacity, which Cantrell and Sewerage & Water Board officials said was working as expected.
“The scale and scope of what we have to grapple with is much bigger than any one agency or any one set of metrics,” Cantrell said. “To be responsible, to be honest, we have to address the whole of the challenge.”
Much of what Cantrell had to say about funding focused on federal money that she said has been stymied by slow-moving design firms and other factors that have prevented the city from putting resources into capital projects. She sought to cast blame on her predecessor, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, in discussing why projects had “languished in the design stage.”
Cantrell said her administration has been “unclogging the bottleneck we’ve seen within the administration that we’ve inherited,” adding, projects “have been on hold for far too long, and we cannot tolerate that moving forward.”
“If you care about New Orleans like I know we all do, you need to care about stormwater and drainage,” Cantrell said. “We will never pump our way out of this, which will require us to do more.”
But much of what Cantrell was discussing concerned funding streams that aren’t considered permanent sources of money. At several points, the mayor said she is committed to implementing an urban water plan released in 2013 that includes a slew of green infrastructure projects over three parishes (Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard) that is expected to cost as much as $9.1 billion.
On two occasions, reporters asked Cantrell during the news conference to outline long-term plans for implementing the urban water plan, including the numerous financing models included in an implementation analysis that is part of the plan. The first time Cantrell was asked about long-term plans for incentivizing private property owners to install green infrastructure, such as porous paving techniques, Cantrell said she’s put out a call to FEMA for help.
“Saying to FEMA, can you please get us several of your employees to work within the walls of City Hall so we can move these projects through at an expedited fashion?” Cantrell said.
There have been indications that Cantrell has been thinking about bracing residents for the long-term costs of funding more modern water management infrastructure projects. Over the weekend, she issued a statement to WDSU-TV that said “residents have to decide how much they are willing to pay to reduce their risk of flooding versus how much risk they are willing to tolerate.”
Asked to expand upon that statement at Tuesday’s news conference, and to name policy prescriptions on her agenda that would give residents and property owners a clearer picture of what they would need to pay, Cantrell focused on previous statements she made about helping property owners adopt techniques that keep water out of the stormwater system.
“Well, in terms of paying, it really speaks to, again, trying to be proactive and trying to building in incentives to help our people live with water and mitigating water on their properties and collecting water, keeping it from running into the drains,” Cantrell said.
“Working with residents who want to get rid of pavement maybe around their properties, so there are proactive solutions we know about that are not only embedded in our urban water plan but again embedded in policies that have been adopted by organizations like the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Urban Conservancy,” Cantrell added. “There’s help there for us and it’s about linking our people to the help and where government plays a role in that, but we truly are in this together.”
The topic of incentives for property owners to install green features has often been raised amid discussions of whether to adopt a citywide stormwater fee that would help fund new infrastructure projects. A 2016 independent analysis of such a fee suggested charging property owners based on how much of their property is impervious to rainwater, and granting credits to owners who install retention or detention structures, install permeable pavement and other green infrastructure.
The Bureau of Governmental Research reached a similar conclusion in a report from 2017. Noting that the city will need $54.5 million by 2026 just to meet impending obligations and maintenance costs, the report noted that there’s no fee structure to provide funding for those needs — let alone build new infrastructure.
“The absence of stormwater fees in one of the nation’s most stormwater-challenged cities becomes more striking in light of the advantages such fees offer,” the report said.
Asked whether the City Council should begin considering whether to adopt a stormwater fee outlined in the BGR and the Raftelis report, Cantrell said, “Well, I think the New Orleans City Council is prepared to work alongside me in mitigating flooding in the city of New Orleans.”
Last year, in the wake of the Aug. 5 floods that were far more damaging than the flooding on Friday, the Landrieu administration indicated they would be willing to move on stormwater fee legislation. An ordinance never emerged before he left office earlier this month, though former City Councilwoman Stacy Head did introduce legislation that would have asked voters to approve a charter amendment to allow the council to set a stormwater fee. The legislation was eventually withdrawn.
Cantrell also outlined recent discussions she’s had during recent meetings with FEMA. She cautioned that the agency doesn’t respond to disasters until 72 hours out, and said officials urged her to tell residents to get homeowners insurance. She said she also asked about renters and was told “push them to get rental insurance.”
“What we’re seeing, really, at the federal level is that they’re willing to help us, and they’re ready to,” Cantrell said. “But the immediate response will be on the city of New Orleans and our local partners. So I’m leaning, leaning heavy and I feel very confident in the support we will get and we are getting.”
Cantrell did not use the news conference to address recent developments in Sewerage & Water Board leadership. The utility’s interim executive director, Marcie Edwards’, last day was Monday. Two interim candidates were recommended by a Sewerage board committee late Monday afternoon.
“Mayor Cantrell has received the recommendations from the committee, and is in the process of reviewing them,” Beau Tidwell, Cantrell’s communications director,” said in an email Tuesday. “She expects to make an announcement soon.”