On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall flooding the city of New Orleans and critically damaging numerous surrounding areas. On August 29, 2021, Hurricane Ida slammed into southeast Louisiana, leaving many displaced from their homes until this day. Today, we remember both storms and how they affected our perspective in our disaster recovery efforts. With disaster recovery program management experience exceeding $5B, CSRS has succeeded at expediting projects and maximizing disaster funding for our clients while maintaining strict compliance with federal, state, and local requirements. Our disaster recovery consultancy focuses on three core objectives: development and implementation of strategies to obtain all eligible funding and deploy it to the most effective recovery use, evaluation and design of incorporating mitigation into recovery projects, and integration of meticulous oversight and quality control with efficient project delivery.
Even before that fateful day in August 2005, many schools in New Orleans, LA, were already in recovery mode. Recovery School District (RSD) had taken over low-performing schools to obtain academic transformation. Then, disaster struck. Hurricane Katrina devastated the city nearly completely, and its schools were not spared. More than 100 buildings were severely damaged or destroyed by one of the most destructive storms in history. The entire city went silent for nearly a year and a half. When residents did begin coming back in 2007, RSD needed a way to provide seats for returning students fast.
"These were educators, not facilities experts," explains Chris Pellegrin, AIA, CSRS Facilities Business Unit Leader. "After Katrina, their first priority had to shift from improving test scores to providing clean, dry, and safe buildings. They had to make sure kids had access to working bathrooms and that there were functional kitchens so students could eat. And they were in unfamiliar territory."
Knowing it needed to bring in the experts, RSD turned to CSRS, in a joint venture with Jacobs Project Management Co., based on recommendations from the Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana State University. Together with its partners, RSD embarked on a 10+ year journey to rebuild the city's schools from the ground up. In the early years of the recovery effort, RSD's most immediate need was to provide seats for returning students. The process of assessing the damage and determining which buildings could be repaired quickly was underway. In tandem with emergency work, CSRS recommended and managed a Quick-Start Program to build five new schools in one year.
"It was quite a feat," says Pellegrin. "But students were starting to return en masse and needed a place to go. When you factor in the reality that for some of these students, the only meal they get all day is at school. It was urgent for RSD to get some facilities up and running as fast as possible."
In addition to the Quick Start Program, a satellite kitchen was designed and built to deliver meals to the open schools without operating kitchens. In under a year, the district had the kitchen in place along with 562,036 sq. ft. of new temporary buildings, providing seats for more than 6,000 students. With its immediate needs addressed, RSD could turn its attention to the larger scope of work and the challenge of rehabbing and rebuilding the city's entire portfolio of schools. As both CSRS and Jacobs were already enmeshed in the effort through management of the initial emergency work and the Quick Start Program, RSD recognized the value in continuing to keep these partners on board. CSRS and Jacobs teamed up to respond jointly to the district's RFP. After winning the contract, creating the Master Plan, and securing the funding to execute, it became the first order of business.
As a federally declared disaster area, New Orleans was entitled to FEMA public assistance. But just how much money it would receive was a matter of debate.
"At one point, RSD was willing to accept about $4 million a year from FEMA," Pellegrin says. "We knew they were entitled to much more."
Rather than go through the painstaking process of negotiating with FEMA on every line item for every building and project, the CSRS Funding Team led the effort to secure a $1.8 billion precedent-setting FEMA settlement, which stood as the largest single settlement in FEMA history before Hurricane Sandy. To win the settlement, CSRS demonstrated how the costs for one project could be applied across the city's entire portfolio of buildings. The CSRS team did much of the legwork to make the settlement a reality, visiting Washington to lobby for and advance the necessary legislation. As a result of the settlement, RSD benefited from a much more streamlined and efficient funding process, and it had the money it needed to start making significant progress on its Master Plan.
In addition to FEMA funding, CSRS helped RSD identify, maximize, and manage funding from many other sources, including the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP), Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), and historic and new market tax credits. These funding sources have been essential to helping RSD realize its goals, especially in the project's early days. Throughout the project and continuing today, CSRS helps RSD comply with federal program requirements and guidelines to ensure funds are not de-obligated. Between 2007 and 2016, RSD worked through three phases of its Capital Program, including several reiterations of its Master Plan to accommodate changing repopulation patterns in the City of New Orleans. RSD successfully built 3,877,000 sq. ft. of renovated or new educational spaces, resulting in 35,175 new or refurbished student seats. Over that time, RSD renewed its contract with CSRS and Jacobs three times, choosing to continue trusting its partners to move the project forward.
"RSD had faced much adversity and navigated through countless challenges over the past decade, especially in the early years when there was constant pressure to keep up with the repopulation and provide enough seats for the kids coming back," says Pellegrin. "We've seen the staff evolve from educators into adept operations people that know how to keep their facilities up and running. And they've done that by working hand-in-hand with their partners at every step and persevering through a difficult situation."
In the fourth and final phase of the program, RSD once again trusted CSRS and Jacobs to complete its portfolio of schools and improve the learning environment for every student in New Orleans. In this phase, CSRS played an instrumental role in protecting the funding and preparing the grants for closeout. CSRS will continue to nurture the relationships it has built with community stakeholders. Finally, CSRS will help RSD meet the challenges of program transition and prepare for its next Master Plan. RSD has come a long way since taking over its first New Orleans school in 2004. The district has not only weathered the storm; it's emerged stronger and more resilient than ever, well-prepared to meet its city's educational needs for decades to come.
"I would highly recommend Jacobs/CSRS…they will listen to you and provide a quality learning facility for every community that we can be proud of for generations to come." – LaToya Cantrell, Mayor of New Orleans