Earlier this month, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell signed an emergency declaration to help agencies prepare for an intrusion of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico into the Mississippi River, where the city gets its water. It’s the latest in a string of environmental challenges that have plagued the city in 2023, from extreme heat and drought to flash flooding.
Enter a team of three city officials who lead efforts to help New Orleans survive those problems and prepare for more of them in the future. Joe Threat, the city’s infrastructure czar, has a background in emergency management and is the leader of the trio. Greg Nichols heads the city’s sustainability and resilience efforts. Mary Kincaid manages major stormwater management and green infrastructure projects, such as the Gentilly Resilience District.
Together, they spoke with Verite News about what the city is doing to help its residents survive old and new environmental challenges.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Verite: How is the city preparing for potential water shortages from the saltwater intrusion?
Threat: We’re just doing the actual preparedness…any other resident would be doing — just making sure we have supplies, drinking water, bathing, washing-type water. There’s no plans for any type of water conservation restrictions at this point …. We’re letting the experts with the Corps of Engineers, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Sewerage & Water Board kind of manage the strategy for it at this time. Lastly, rainfall in the Ohio Valley is the big key. If we can get more rain, the risk starts to diminish.
Verite: This year was the city’s hottest summer on record. How’s the city helping residents and businesses develop resilience around extreme heat?
Nichols: We’ve been been in contact with and working with Councilmember Helena Moreno’s office and the [City] Council has allotted our office $300,000 to go out and do a heat mitigation strategy for the city. We are going to be putting together a request for proposals to go out and get some consultant support on that. And really, the focus of that is going to be pulling together [individual things we’re already doing]. [We’ve been] doing tree plantings across the city and we joined the Smart Surfaces Coalition to give us technical assistance on analyzing all the surfaces that we have in the city and do a cost-benefit analysis on what it would what it would cost and also what our benefits would be implementing things like cool paint, cool roofs and green roofs.
We expect that work to inform the strategy and give us a holistic path forward on heat. Heat, you know, is a newer threat. I think everybody who lives here has experienced warm summers but nothing like we’ve had this last summer. We’ve had strategies in place [in the past], but this will be the first time we kind of put together a comprehensive strategy.
Kincaid: In the last couple of days Parks and Parkways announced the city received a grant to plant a truly transformative number of trees. Also, last year, the city completed and announced the reforestation plan, which our planning commission did as a contract with Sustaining Our Urban Landscape.
Other things that the city’s already doing that’s kind of boots-on-the-ground is the City Council’s ordinance on permeable parking areas. So the Department of Public Works has already been…adding more permeable parking areas and more permeable surfaces in conjunction with that ordinance. What those permeable surfaces do is they really reduce the amount of heat that gets stored and released at night. We had a lot of attention this summer on the daily highs, but what’s also a significant threat to public health is if the nighttime temperature in someone’s home doesn’t go below 84 degrees.
We have some hazard mitigation grants and also some disaster resilience grants for construction projects where we’re going to be adding 20,000 trees. [And] we’re going to be creating two new public parks that are both about 26 acres. We’re really excited to bring these two new parks online, one being…[the Mirabeau Water Garden] and the other being Dillard Wetlands.
Verite: The city was awarded over $140 million for the Gentilly Resilience District. In March, the city said it would start $85 million in construction projects for the district this year. How will the various projects planned for the district benefit resilience throughout the city, not just in Gentilly?
Kincaid: We are still looking to break ground this year .… We do have to have final environmental approval from [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]. So we have a couple of tasks we have to complete as far as our environmental due diligence on any artifacts in the area. So we are so hopeful to start this fall, but that’s something that we’re monitoring closely.
Now, how is it going to benefit the entire city? Even though the Blue & Green Corridors project, which takes place along Elysian Fields and Allen Toussaint, was intended to resolve flooding in that area, we saw [we could potentially] get flooding reduction south of [Interstate] 610. So we’re getting flooding reduction in other neighborhoods.
So when we [keep stormwater] out of the pumped drainage system, then it’s allowing water from other [areas] to move more quickly get pumped to the lake more quickly. So [we’ll see] flooding relief, far beyond the confines of Gentilly.
Verite: How will the city complete construction on the various projects involved in the creation of the Gentilly Resilience District by 2025 when there’s already been so many delays? Granted, there have been justified delays like Hurricane Ida and COVID-19. What will the city do to complete the projects if the city doesn’t meet the federal funding deadline of Aug. 30, 2025?
Threat: Once [we issue a] notice to proceed for construction, it’s hard for a money manager in Washington to say, ‘Hey, I’m taking that money back, so you can’t finish that project.’ So our intent…is for us to push — and you see it throughout the city — our construction projects as quickly as we can, as safely as we can, to get as much done in construction as we can. And things are going to happen, but if we get 75% into construction, I think we’re going to finish our work.
Kincaid: Now, even if the grant was extended indefinitely, we would still want to start these construction projects as possible, because of the flooding reduction and the urban heat benefits that that we mentioned.
Threat: One last thing and a point that’s very important: the impact of inflation. We’re feeling it right now…where a project that was budgeted and funded by the federal government for $48 million and bids are coming in at $100 million. That’s having a big impact on the construction we’re doing right now.
Verite: So does that mean less gets done?
Threat: [It means] we have to find more money. We use our bond portfolio to [fill in] those gaps and funding deficits. It’s our it’s imperative…to get the work done. So we had a $500 million bond vote in . And we’re using those funds to fill the gaps of inflation right now.
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