FEMA’s Last Marina

Published: July 2013 Marina Dockage Magazine
© 2013 Troy Gilbert

A Big Drifter in New Orleans

This August, eight years will have passed since Hurricane Katrina sideswiped New Orleans and struck the Mississippi Gulf Muni2Coast. While the damage was unprecedented in loss of property and life, a side chapter was the near absolute devastation to the Gulf Coast’s recreational and commercial boating as well as its infrastructure. While the actual losses for boats and marina damages in the wake of superstorm Sandy’s blow to the Northeast last October still comes in, there are lessons to be learned from New Orleans in the potential delays and setbacks for municipal marinas all along the Atlantic Seaboard and in the least, act as a cautionary tale for any publicly owned marinas located in hurricane country.

As with all Federally declared natural disasters, any damaged or destroyed state, county/parish or city owned infrastructure, building or even vehicle is eligible for FEMA rebuilding or replacement funds and this includes municipal marinas – but that doesn’t mean it will happen fast. No matter how much government talks about expediency, there is no getting around the fact that these are federal government programs and their guidelines suddenly interacting with layers of state and local governments in the aftermath of a disaster – agencies which more than likely have never interacted before.

In New Orleans there were three large public marinas on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain – two owned by the Orleans Levee Board and one owned by the City of New Orleans. The largest, Municipal Harbor is a breakwater protected marina of nearly 700 slips located in a massive and historic marina and park district known as West End, all of which is owned by the city with some of it leased out to restaurants, yacht clubs, chandleries and boathouses. With the hurricane glancing New Orleans and the lake with its weaker northwestern quadrant, Katrina still managed to double its 12′ depth via the surge through the marshes and channels and push winds 50+ miles inshore that were clocked in the 110-120mph range.

The winds and surge initially caused poorly secured boats in Municipal Harbor to break their lines and then cascade down onto each successive pier creating a domino effect. This was worsened as the winds shifted while the hurricane passed to the northeast and then whipped the marina into “a cauldron of hell” of loosed boats playing bumper cars. Municipal Harbor reached over 80% of boat losses. By contrast, the smaller inner harbor directly to her south, Orleans Marina, was protected by high rise condos, boat houses and utilities raised on hardened coverings running the length of the cement piers. This marina only experienced 20% of boat loss, nearly all still held fast in their slips – the majority of this 20% were lost as they were impaled by their pilings in the dropping water levels after the storm.
Muni3
Always plucky and desperate for a semblance of normality, sailors from New Orleans’ Southern Yacht Club held their 156th Closing Regatta on Lake Pontchartrain only 60 days after the storm’s landfall. Crews onboard scores of damaged and salvaged boats raced almost defiantly on the waters that had inundated their city. Still inaccessible by foot or car because of the heaps of debris and the jigsaw puzzle of boats in the road leading to the club, hundreds made their way using scrounged together boat “taxis” to access the grounds of their club for the post-regatta festivities. Located adjacent to the marina, they celebrated on the green St. Augustine lawn amongst the still smoldering remains of their clubhouse which had suffered the dual afflictions of water and fire. To those that were there, it was one of the finest hours of not just a ravaged and displaced organization, but of the city itself.

The first real inkling to the amount of time it would take to restore New Orleans’ recreational maritime infrastructure was punctuated for the boating community as they watched derelict and foundered boats rot in the marinas for two years after Katrina. This wasn’t terribly surprising, as nearly every local police station, firehouse, school, home and business still lay gutted and rotting with the majority of the population still displaced. The FEMA trailer became ubiquitous for virtually every local branch of government and all were caught up in the endless paperwork of FEMA. In those first few years, a public marina was never going to be a priority, and no one questioned that.

For Municipal Harbor, it wasn’t until the Environmental Protection Agency, spurred by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality stepped in to halt the standard solvents, fuels, paints and chemicals from leaching out of the foundered boats and the stores from the boat service companies that had washed into the marina. By late 2007, using side scanning sonar, the boats and sunken debris were removed and where possible much of it was recycled including the lead hulls of many of the sailboats – broken open and removed in the middle of the streets and parks where they were dumped.

Then came the seemingly endless wait  – a perfect storm of regulations, politics and often times bureaucratic bungling Muni4allowed New Orleans’s largest marina district to lay in limbo while the surrounding middle-class neighborhood came back stronger than before the storm. Nearly all of West End – the Municipal Harbor, the 100 acres of parks, boat launches and fishing piers have yet to be repaired. All are still awaiting FEMA’s Hurricane Katrina funding – a program created to stand up Americans in the immediate wake of devastating events.

The big piece, as always, is money. After Hurricane Andrew hit southern Florida, which was then the most expensive natural 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 in reality an accounting trick called a “transfer” or the allocating of dollar amounts based on say salaries for the Coast Guard when that money would have been spent anyway. These huge numbers were a fabrication for the media and the people – New Orleans and the other devastated areas after Katrina were never awash in federal money, it was more of a lame drizzle – and all the while New Orleans and the Gulf Coast waited.

John Brimer who operates Schubert’s Marine at West End and provides boat repairs and sales states that since the storm he has lost 54% of his business because of the still unrepaired marina. After rebuilding his business, he has struggled the last eight years and currently employs only 9 of the 19 skilled boat tradesmen he had before the storm.  He states, “Having Municipal Harbor functioning would mean another 600 boats we would have an opportunity to service, fuel and sell parts Muni5to.”

He is not alone, from yacht sales to sail lofts, nearly all of the businesses at West End are at nearly half their pre-storm employment – most are disheartened and feel that they are allowed to struggle and waste away in the bureaucratic knot, while they were some of the first businesses who committed to reopen and did so.

Understanding that it was political suicide to immediately focus on the rebuilding of a marina, a project which could cost upwards of $26M, the city finally filed the paperwork with FEMA in 2007. Called Project Worksheets, this is the first step in the FEMA process. FEMA representatives then came out and did, by all accounts, a rapid visual inspection of the marina and came in with a seriously lowballed repair amount. The President of the city’s marina Harbor Board, Warner Tureaud explains, “FEMA originally did a visual inspection of the marina, but by doing that you’re not going to know of any damage to the concrete piers either below the water or the mud line. We’ve had to hire consultants to investigate any possible damage to these concrete piers and their causation that aren’t visible.”

Drawing on the Harbor Board’s dwindling funds, the organization was forced to hire consultant after consultant in order to investigate the potential damage to the marina – above and below the water – and this resulted in several more years of delays, all the while the economic losses were piling up. The Harbor Board even considered selling off historic parks to developers in order to staunch their draining cash reserves.

According to an economic analysis by Michigan State University’s Recreational Marine Research Center, a public marina the size of Municipal Harbor located in the southeast United States would result in nearly $26 million dollars a year of direct and indirect effects to the local economy and 160 jobs.

Further delays were incurred by the layers of city government passing information up the chain of communication, starting with the Harbor Board until it reached the city’s liaison with FEMA and then in reverse. This process wasn’t streamlined until 2010, and then only after the local Councilmember fought to bring a representative from the Harbor Board directly into the FEMA negotiations.

The next big catch for this situation is that FEMA is by law only allowed to reimburse a project for the dollar amount that it Muni6would take to get it to its pre-disaster status.

A great example of this were the hundreds of public transportation buses flooded out by the levee failures in New Orleans. 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.

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 80% of its population returned, still has its police district operating out of FEMA trailers in 2012. 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. Seven years after landfall, the public school and the library finally re-opened in the spring of 2012.

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 who are still are struggling to rebuild their lives, businesses and city.

In eight years, the only reconstruction out at West End has been on privately leased  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 and have laid-off accordingly. 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 three 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 became heartbreaking. It wasn’t until December of 2012, that FEMA and the city reached a $10.5M settlement with re-construction potentially starting in the winter of 2013. Further grants may become available in order to “harden” the marina against future storm damage by raising utilities as they are doing on the Mississippi Coast.

The only bright spot is that if the negotiations were to finally conclude today, New Orleans will have a rebuilt state of the art marina and park complex capable of hosting world class regattas, boat shows & fishing tournaments in perhaps another two years – a decade after the storm’s landfall.

Today, the Northern Gulf Coast holds a stable of nearly $30M worth of rebuilt and state of the art yacht clubs and Mississippi has $94M in new or expanded marinas under construction. However eight years out in New Orleans, a real cautionary tale of politics, glacial bureaucracy and disregard will always hover over the city’s largest public marina – the nearly 700 slip Municipal Harbor.

More images of Municipal Harbor and Katrina damage are available HERE.

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