By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL — The city of Slidell appears to be weeks away from getting the first substantial news from FEMA regarding monetary compensation for repairs to its infrastructure, after damage from Hurricane Katrina put the city in a position to get what may be tens of millions of dollars.
Frank Stuart, president of Stuart Consulting, Inc., said this week that his firm believes Slidell should get the first news about FEMA reimbursement for street repairs no later than September.
Stuart Consulting was hired by the city over a year ago at a cost of $450,000 from a tight Slidell budget. While the matter was contentious between the City Council and Mayor Freddy Drennan to approve that much money in difficult financial times, the mayor and council agreed the potential for the city was too great to pass up.
The council approved $250,000 for Stuart in May, 2011, then had to follow up with $200,000 more for the firm in December. Since then, Stuart’s staff has been diligently reviewing every project worksheet the city had previously handled in-house during Katrina recovery times, and also began the enormous task of evaluating all of Slidell’s infrastructure for possible FEMA money.
Dozens of cities along the Gulf Coast have already received hundreds of millions of dollars to repair roads, sewer lines, water lines and drainage line damage from Katrina. Stuart said the city of Slidell should have every opportunity to receive the same money, although some critics questioned if Slidell had waited too long to begin the process.
Stuart said this week that his staff has completed the preliminary work for FEMA in regards to Slidell roads, and a FEMA team is expected to be in Slidell within the next few weeks to make their final evaluation.
“FEMA’s infrastructure group has set a personal time frame to finish the road work by September,” Stuart said. “That is encouraging. We hope to have our PW’s (project worksheets) started that month for the city roads.”
Considering other communities the size of Slidell have gotten over $50 million, $100 million and more (St. Bernard Parish has received over $1 billion), Stuart hinted in previous interviews that he sees no reason Slidell may not have a chance to see similar numbers. But he stopped short of predicting exactly what that could be.
“What we do know is that almost every other community along the Gulf Coast has gotten tens of millions, even hundreds of millions,” he said. “We know Slidell was hit by the eye of the storm, and we know water sat on streets here for days. That creates an incredible amount of damage underneath the roads, including the water, sewer and drainage lines.”
Stuart said the simple fact the FEMA crew is coming to evaluate the Slidell streets indicates they acknowledge the damage is real.
Stuart said the city has already gotten approval for close to $1 million, that coming from dozens of other Slidell worksheets that were handled in-house in the years after the storm.
“The first thing we did was review every project worksheet the city had with FEMA,” he said. “We uncovered a substantial amount of additional money the city is owed for things like the Senior Center, the auditorium, Fritchie Park and more. FEMA has agreed, but has not told us if it is $600,000, $800,000 or $1 million for those separate items.”
After that, the bigger dollar areas of infrastructure come into play, starting with roads, and then followed by water lines, sewer lines and drainage lines. Stuart believes it could be only a matter of months to get approval for those repairs since FEMA officials understand repairs will be less costly overall if done all at once.
“Their officials know it would be best to dig up the ground one time, and repair everything, as opposed to doing roads, then coming back for sewer or water line repairs,” he said.
Slidell Councilman Jay Newcomb, among the first city officials to recognize the possibility of millions of dollars for infrastructure repair, has followed that topic by conferring with Dr. Erez Allouche, a Louisiana Tech professor who has become a “post-Katrina expert” on the subject. Newcomb organized a city trip to Ruston for Allouche to explain his research.
Newcomb connected Allouche and Stuart, who will utilize a new invention called FutureScan, which is essentially a robot type device that will go into Slidell’s sewer and drain lines, gathering data about where damage may be.
The robot detects that information by finding small areas of sinkholes, even as little as 8 inches in diameter, that are around pipes. The holes indicate a crack in the pipes, where the dirt has begun to seep into, then wash away. The larger the hole becomes, the better chance a road overhead will eventually collapse.
Stuart’s firm will use the FutureScan equipment in Slidell from Aug. 1-3.
“The FutureScan looks for spaces under the road, and gives us one more piece of evidence to illustrate the problems here that were a result of the flooded roads,” Stuart said. “If you consider how heavy all that water was on the streets, sitting on it for days before going away, you understand how it could put pressure on pipes throughout the city and cause cracks and breaks. That leads to dirt washing away, sinkholes and road damage.”
It was only last year when the city experienced three separate, large sinkhole situations with local roads. One of them on Maple Street became large enough for a school bus to fall into, Drennan said at the time, noting it could have been a disastrous situation if not uncovered.
Slidell Public Works Director Michael Noto has already confirmed the city has substantial data indicating a huge increase in water and sewer pipeline leaks in the city since Katrina, with the higher amount of them in the areas where flood waters sat for days.
“All we want is for FEMA to pay what is real and justified for the City of Slidell,” Stuart said.