More than seven years after New Orleans first received a $141 million federal grant to build an innovative stormwater management system in one of its sinking neighborhoods, the city still hasn’t broken ground on the Gentilly Resilience District.

New Orleans is running up against an August 2025 deadline to fulfill the terms of that federal grant, and the city has repeatedly pushed back construction timelines. In March, the city said it would begin $85 million in construction projects for the district this year. And last month, officials told Verite News they were still looking to start construction this fall.

Now, parts of the district will be ready for a construction bid in early 2024, with the city aiming to break ground next summer, according to estimates from officials at a St. Bernard community meeting for the project at McDonogh 35 High School on Wednesday (Oct. 4). 

The initiative, meant to serve as a model for flood-vulnerable areas across the country, received money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development following Hurricane Isaac in 2012. The Gentilly Resilience District comprises seven projects including restoring wetlands near Dillard University, enhancing the Dwyer Canal and building new flooding infrastructure for the neighborhood around the former St. Bernard public housing complex. 

Speaking to a crowd of about 50 people in the school’s library, the project’s managers said that causes for the lengthy construction delays have ranged from a cyberattack that shut down city government in 2019 to the devastating effects of Hurricane Ida in 2021.

The St. Bernard project, which centers on an underground stormwater drainage system, is also still waiting on environmental clearance from HUD. The city expects the first stages of the project to receive this clearance by the end of the year, said Stephanie Dreher, senior project manager for the New Orleans Department of Stormwater and Green Infrastructure.

Because the stormwater drainage system will require substantial excavation, Dreher said the Choctaw Nation has also requested an archaeological survey, and the project will be required to have an archaeological monitor on the site during the construction process. 

Credit: Lue Palmer / Verite News

The St. Bernard project will be built in three phases, explained Thomas Cancienne, an engineer for Stantec, the firm leading the resilience design. The first phase focuses on the construction of a 4.2-acre underground stormwater drainage system, located under the former Willie Hall playground on school property, that will hold up to five million gallons of water. The system is designed to drain nearby streets that accumulate water during heavy rain events, such as the intersection of St. Bernard Avenue and Harrison Avenue, where residents have said they frequently have to go through floods to reach McDonogh 35. 

A football field, baseball diamond, basketball court and running track will be built above the drainage system at the site of the playground, where the former Edward H. Phillips Elementary and Junior High schools were demolished after Hurricane Katrina. The city will also build a recreation building, restroom and storage facility at the site.

The final stage of the project will include a shade structure that can be used as an outdoor classroom, along with a kayak launch on the edge of Bayou St. John that will be managed by the city’s recreation department.

The neighborhood resilience project has gone through several revisions since 2013, when the earliest plans for the district started to take shape, integrating feedback from community surveys and citizen data on where and when flooding occurs, Cancienne said.

“We took that information and plugged it into our models to say this is what’s really happening,” Cancienne said. “And that’s what we used to base our improvements on.”

Though St. Bernard residents have been waiting on the project for years, those present at Wednesday’s meeting said they still supported the Gentilly Resilience District and were satisfied with the city’s update. 

“I was most concerned about all the bureaucratic stuff and everything getting pushed back and back and back. That’s why I asked the question…’Are we just talking about it?’” said Roy Smith, a longtime local baseball coach. “But I’m pleased to know that…we do have a date that we’re going to start pushing off. I’m very pleased about that.” 

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Climate and multimedia journalist Lue Palmer is a native of Toronto, Canada, with roots in Jamaica. Before entering their career in journalism, Lue was a writer, documentarian and podcaster, covering race,...