New Orleans’ SELA drainage work should end this year, except on Florida Ave.

By Susan Buchanan

Source: The Louisiana Weekly

February 19, 2018

On some days, you need nerves of steel to drive down Louisiana Avenue during rush hour. It’s one of several arteries torn up under a $2 billion effort to improve drainage in Orleans and Jefferson parishes under the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project or SELA.

All of SELA’s work to upgrade the city’s canals and pump stations was scheduled to end by late 2018. The Louisiana corridor should be done by then. But in the Ninth Ward, Florida Avenue’s phases 2, 3 and 4 will extend into 2019 and 2020. Major construction was finished in Jefferson Parish last year.

Nearly 300 Uptown Orleans residents, along with some businesses, are taking legal action against the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, claiming property damages from SELA. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the S&WB administer SELA work, with the Corps awarding construction contracts. The state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is a partner.

Under an agreement with the Corps, the S&WB is responsible for settling claims stemming from SELA work. Settlements become part of the S&WB’s share of its SELA project costs.

New SELA drainage structures are designed to help neighborhoods cope with as much as nine inches of rain over 24 hours. But on August 5 of this year, nine inches fell in only four hours in Mid-City and other parts of town. SELA was authorized in 1996 by the United States Congress after local flooding from downpours in May of 1995.

Since the late 1990s, funding for SELA has been mostly shared. Before Katrina, it was 75 percent federal and 25 percent local. After Katrina, Congress in a Flood Control and Coastal Emergency supplemental appropriation dedicated $224.8 million in federal funds to SELA, aiming to accelerate it. Since 2008, the costs of SELA’s post-Katrina 6th and 7th supplemental appropriation projects have been shared at 65 percent federal, with a 35-percent local payback under a 30-year plan.

Last year, a “Beneath the Surface” study by the non-profit Bureau of Governmental Research in New Orleans said the S&WB’s paybacks on SELA will start in 2019 and swell to an expensive $8.8 million a year in 2022 and thereafter.

Before Katrina, the first phase of work on Napoleon Avenue from South Claiborne Avenue to South Broad Street was finished in 2003. A year ago, virtually all of the Napoleon work was done, except for the landscaping.

“As with most large-scale construction projects, SELA contracts have run into typical delays, such as weather impacts and modifications to contracts,“ Army Corps spokesman Rene Poche said last week. “But these delays haven’t changed completion dates drastically on any SELA Orleans projects.”

Over the past week, the S&WB refrained from commenting on delays to SELA.

Work on Louisiana Avenue from Constance to South Claiborne may wrap up in December. But at the moment, car and bus drivers must squeeze through because of lane closures. “It’s supposed to be done this year, but for now Louisiana’s a dusty, noisy mess, and the businesses here are concerned,” Van Dat of Dat’s Tailor and Alterations on Louisiana at Carondelet Street said last week. “Our customers can’t park on Louisiana, and they have to go around the corner. Plaster on my inside walls is cracking.”

What’s left Louisiana Avenue so torn up? Workers are building a concrete canal from Constance Street to South Claiborne under Louisiana’s neutral ground. Planned at 8 feet wide by 6 feet high from Constance to St. Charles Avenue, the new canal will expand to 16 feet wide by 7.5 feet from South Liberty Street to South Claiborne. In 2014, the Army Corps awarded the avenue’s build contract to Boh Brothers Construction in New Orleans.

What will this canal under Louisiana accomplish? It’s to tie into the South Claiborne Avenue Manifold Canal, providing a new route for storm water, relieving the flow through the existing Third Street and Napoleon Avenue Canals.

Meanwhile, Jefferson Avenue’s phase 1 work from Claiborne to Dryades is scheduled to end this summer. And in the last two years, a fair amount of Uptown SELA construction got done. Jefferson’s phase 2 from Dryades to Constance finished in late 2016. Napoleon Avenue’s phase 2 from Claiborne to Carondelet wrapped up in the summer of 2016. Napoleon’s phase 3 from Carondelet to Constance ended early last year.

SELA’s Claiborne Avenue phase 1 from Monticello to Leonidas and its phase 2 from Leonidas to Lowerline were both finished last summer.

But in the Ninth Ward, Florida Avenue neighbors and drivers will have to deal with construction for awhile. Florida’s phases 2 and 3 from St. Ferdinand to Mazant, along with side streets Montegut and Desire from Florida to North Dorgenois, should be finished by spring of next year. Florida Avenue’s phase 4 work is slated to end in 2020.

As for the Uptown dwellers claiming damages from SELA, a trial for Residential Group A Homeowners against the S&WB is slated to begin early next month in Orleans Civil District Court.

“The court has granted trial preference to homeowners over 70 years of age, and has divided the case into trial groups,” said Michael Whitaker, an attorney for Uptown residents, working with Bruno & Bruno law firm in New Orleans. “The first, bellwether trial of five homeowners living on Claiborne, Napoleon and Prytania is to begin on March 5. The trial of a second group of homeowners over 70 years old and living on Jefferson Avenue is set to begin on April 9.”

“The S&WB has behaved disgracefully, treating homeowners with damaged properties as liars and frauds,” Whitaker said “The agency was well aware before this SELA work began that damages would occur due to construction-caused vibrations, noise, dust and blocked or impaired access to driveways and sidewalks.”

According to the S&WB, SELA will improve a neighborhood’s drainage, but during construction “minimal inconveniences, such as noise, traffic rerouting and parking limitations” are expected. To reduce these aggravations, canal construction is limited to two to four blocks at a time. Temporary water and sewer lines and walkways to homes are installed as needed. Residents can phone SELA’s construction hot line at (504) 585-2450 with any concerns.

SELA work has affected public transit. When asked about bus service on Louisiana Avenue and other routes, Taslin Alfonzo, spokeswoman for Transdev and the Regional Transit Authority, said that to mitigate impacts on passengers, the RTA stays in close touch with the S&WB and the Army Corps about SELA’s phases. As for some bus rerouting that’s occurred, “navigating detours is part of the ongoing training for drivers in our professional development programs,” she said. “We haven’t had any accidents attributed to SELA construction.” The RTA will continue to consider SELA work as it updates transit schedules this year.

This article originally published in the February 19, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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