New Orleans — When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded contracts in December 2006 for storm proofing of several of the city’s pumping stations, the goal was to ensure they could withstand Category 3 winds.
Now some of that work appears to be in jeopardy because of a lack of funding for the proposed work. Corps officials, however, said Tuesday that whatever work can be done within their budget will be completed, while the Sewerage and Water Board said it stands behind the integrity of its facilities.
The federal government gave the corps $340 million for storm-proofing projects in Orleans and Jefferson parishes after Hurricane Katrina. Of that money, $204 million went toward eight projects in Orleans Parish, including hardening of several aging S&WB pumping stations, said Dan Bradley, senior project manager for the corps’ storm-proofing program.
Storm-proofing measures for the stations were to include strengthening walls and roofs, or replacing them if necessary, installing new doors and windows, adding backup generators, and other electrical and mechanical work.
Robert Jackson, an S&WB spokesman, said no one was available for an interview Tuesday, but in a statement from the board, the agency said the corps recently notified them that some work will not be completed.
“In most cases, the planned work to be removed from contracts centers on addressing the structural integrity of some of our drainage facilities,” the statement reads in part. “The Corps has given us every assurance that they will make every effort to maximize the work to be completed in an effort to provide more resilient structures.”
Lawmakers in Washington were less forgiving of the agency than the S&WB.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he didn’t learn about the funding shortage until contacted by a reporter from WWL-TV, which reported the news on Monday evening.
He said the lack of funding to complete projects is a “recurring theme.”
He said Congress authorizes the work, not just the dollar amount, and that too often it appears the corps runs out of money and simply stops working.
“The corps didn’t debrief us, much less approach Congress,” he said Tuesday.
“I am very concerned that more than seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the corps is still reporting cost overruns,” U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, said Monday.
Staffers from Richmond’s office met in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday with Ed Fleming, the corps’ district manager and district engineer in New Orleans, and Thomas Holden Jr., deputy district engineer for project management, to discuss the situation, according to Monique Waters, a spokeswoman for Richmond.
For all the criticism of the project, Bradley said the storm-proofing project funding has always been fluid.
The age of many of the pumping stations is to blame for some of the delays, he said, noting that the aging buildings require extra time and effort.
“In construction, time is money,” he said. “We’re up against the wall. We have a finite budget and we have to execute within that.”
He added that work does continue at the sites and pointed out that several of the storm-proofing measures have actually been achieved at some pumping stations.
“We will not leave any pump station weaker than before,” Bradley said.
The fact that Benetech, the contractor overseeing the projects at the affected pumping stations, is embroiled in a federal corruption scandal has not had any effect on the work, he said.
“The delays are related to the buildings,” he said.
As for the S&WB, the agency said it will continue to work with the corps to find funding to improve its system.
Until then, its buildings have stood the test of time and will continue to hold, even if the work isn’t completed as expected, according to the board’s statement.
“These stations have been in place and staffed with SWB employees, throughout every major weather event that has impacted this city over the last 100 years, whether Category 1, 2, 3 or above,’’ the statement said. “We are confident that with proper maintenance funding, these buildings will be resilient throughout storms in the future.”
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