FEMA’s Marinas: The Long Slog

Southwinds – October 2011

When the Federal levees failed in New Orleans the morning after Hurricane Katrina struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast, everyone understood that there was to be no rapid miracle of rebuilding. What wasn’t understood those six years ago was the incredible toad-like movements of government on every level to rebuild, including the bureaucracy that still allows the city’s primary marina infrastructure to languish.

New Orleans’ marina district, West End, has been a primary commercial and recreational boating area on Lake Pontchartrain since 1830. Throughout West End’s history it has been home to jazz clubs, legendary seafood restaurants, two of the city’s three largest public marinas, the start of the oldest point-to-point regatta in the Western Hemisphere and two yacht clubs including the second oldest club in the United States – all centered on a 60 acre park complex outside the flood protection walls of the city.

Rising a mere four to five feet above sea level, West End was inundated by the lake whipped up by 110 knot winds pushing water towards the city from the north. The boats of the outer harbor were quickly overwhelmed as they broke free and cascaded down through the piers like chaotic rows of dominos. Many were finally held in check by sound structures, massive oak trees or literal knots of boats piled onto each other. The over-the-water seafood restaurants that had existed for decades were the next to succumb and their debris only added to the frothy chaos.

By morning, West End’s marinas and her boats were devastated, but the city as a whole had appeared to yet again dodge a bullet until reports of the floodwall failures – the rest, as they say, is history.

The first real inkling of the amount of time it would take to restore the city’s recreational maritime infrastructure was punctuated for the sailing community as they watched derelict and foundered boats rot in the marinas until the summer of 2007. It wasn’t terribly surprising, as nearly every local government facility was still fallow, gutted and rotting – the FEMA trailer became ubiquitous for every agency from police to schools and all were caught up in the endless paperwork of FEMA.

For Municipal Harbor, it wasn’t until the Environmental Protection Agency and the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality stepped in to halt your standard solvents, fuels, paints and chemicals from leaching out of the boats and the boat service companies that had washed into the marina. By late 2007, the foundered boats were removed and where possible much of it was recycled.

Then came the seemingly endless wait that continues to this day.

Today a perfect storm of regulations, politics and oftentimes bureaucratic bungling has allowed West End’s public infrastructure to lay in wait.

Politics and appearances were the first real delays – and the boating community understood this one – for awhile. No one in their right mind expected marinas to be a rebuilding priority within the first few years, especially given that so many police and fire stations and schools were still lying ravaged. Six years out though, the patience and understanding has worn thin – even more so given the proven economic benefits of a rebuilt and functioning marina complex can provide for a city, especially for a surrounding middle class neighborhood and it’s small businesses that have struggled to return to nearly 75% of its pre-storm population.

The big piece, as always, is money. After Hurricane Andrew hit southern Florida, which was then the most expensive disaster to ever befall the United States, economists regularly detailed how the 25 billion dollar price tag of that storm had actually kicked up the GDP of the nation as a whole and reflected the rebuilding of infrastructure and private property.

With the then touted numbers of immediate federal government spending for Katrina bouncing in the range of 110-140 billion dollars, it is strange that not one economist saw an uptick in the national GDP. One economist even went so far as to state that if those numbers constantly touted by the Bush Administration were correct, then it’d be like adding another state of South Carolina to the union. The numbers were an accounting trick, a fabrication for the media – New Orleans and the other devastated areas were never awash in federal money, it was more of a lame drizzle.

Municipal Yacht Harbor is owned by the city of New Orleans and as all public infrastructure involved in a declared disaster, it is eligible for rebuilding funds through FEMA. The first issue for the city as a whole though, was the way FEMA operates. After a disaster, FEMA is there to reimburse a state or municipality for the reconstruction costs of say, government offices. The problem for New Orleans was that 80% of a major metropolitan area was destroyed including 80% of the public infrastructure.

Even if New Orleans was the wealthiest city in the world, there is no way it could foot the costs beforehand as FEMA requires. The replacement costs of infrastructure that took over 100 years to originally construct and pay for was beyond any municipalities reach – not to mention that with the city destroyed, there were zero local tax revenues coming in.

It took nearly two years for Congress to rewrite the rules and then issue a grant to the city for a revolving fund that would be used to pre-pay for projects. Upon completion, this fund would be reimbursed by FEMA and the whole process would start again with a new round of rebuilding projects. The problem here is that this grant only equaled about 250 million dollars – projects would have to be severely prioritized, adding to the delays.

Once this glaring issue was finally cleared up, two years after the storm, then the ubiquitous Project Worksheets began in earnest. In short, PW’s are the formal paperwork submitted to FEMA and then haggled over between a municipality and the federal agency until they settle on a dollar amount. One of the biggest catches for this arrangement is that FEMA is by law only allowed to reimburse a project for the dollar amount that it would take to get it to its pre-disaster status.

A great example of this are the hundreds of public transportation buses flooded out by the levee failures. FEMA was forcing the city to either track down and purchase hundreds of 20 – 30 year old public buses or take a massively penalized bus replacement settlement. This was even when the city no longer needed hundreds of buses because of the population loss and was begging for maybe 2/3 of that number in new energy efficient vehicles.

Unbelievably, this quixotic wrangling is still ongoing – the city agencies charged with this endeavor regarding the marina are currently bickering with FEMA about how much Katrina silted in the harbor. This is forcing endless study after study to determine the outcome of just this one question.

What’s stunning is that this is not isolated to a marina. The district that encompasses West End, which is middle class and with nearly 75% of its population returned, still has its police operating out of FEMA trailers. Construction on the neighborhood’s public school and library literally broke ground a week before the 5 year anniversary of the storm with the powers that be fully aware that the national spotlight would again be focused on the city.

By all appearances, FEMA is either a bottomless rat-hole of paperwork or this may have been quietly intentional in order to spread the massive rebuilding costs out for most of a decade. Either way, it does a great disservice to American citizens hurt by a natural disaster and that were and still are struggling to rebuild their lives, businesses and city.

In six years, the only reconstruction out at West End has been on privately owned buildings and boathouses. The Yacht Clubs have rebuilt and with that they’ve been holding successful national championship regattas even amidst the lacking infrastructure. The small business owners, the sail lofts, fuel stations and boat services companies have all returned. Yet, they subsist on a customer base of two thirds of what it was before the storm. The boat owners wait as their vessels sit in slips without power and water and navigate non-existent or self repaired wooden finger piers.

In stark contrast, the two other public marinas in New Orleans that were owned by the Orleans Parish Levee Board and who had access to the much deeper pockets of the state of Louisiana, were rebuilt two years ago.

The gallows humor amongst the boaters was prevalent for years, but now it is simply getting sad. In a downturned economy, what was a heroic struggle for small business owners is now becoming heartbreaking. The only bright spot is that if the negotiations were to finally conclude today, New Orleans will have a state of the art marina, entertainment and park complex capable of hosting world class regattas in perhaps another two years – nearly a decade after the storm’s landfall.