Friday, January 11, 2008

New Orleans hires firm to oversee recovery projects

Seeking to quickly move hundreds of stymied rebuilding projects toward reality, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced Thursday that the city has hired an engineering management firm to oversee the repair of public assets and keep residents updated on the work.

MWH, formerly known as Montgomery Watson Harza, will earn an estimated $6 million to coordinate the work of architects, engineers and building contractors hired by the city to fix flood-damaged police and fire stations, streets, recreation centers, court buildings, museums, libraries and parks.

The company's efforts will bolster the work of overwhelmed City Hall employees who before Katrina handled just a handful of capital projects every year. Since the storm, a reduced staff in city government and other agencies has struggled with a mountain of paperwork, including public bid documents and requests for FEMA reimbursements, trying to get hundreds of projects started at once.

"We know that this amount of work is unprecedented, and that's why we're bringing some outside help in," Nagin said during a City Hall briefing.

Online updates

Of particular interest to residents, MWH plans to create a mechanism to provide steady updates on progress in each project. The result may resemble an Internet-based map that the company designed for Kansas City, Mo., said Bob Uhler, the company's chief executive officer.

That map, which Uhler projected for reporters on a large screen, allows residents to click on icons posted at all project sites and view details such as the lead contractor, ground-breaking date, target completion date and the phone number of the city official responsible for the project. The Web address for the map is

In New Orleans, such a service could be online by February, city Recovery Director Ed Blakely said.

As with most of the cost of repairs to flood-damaged assets, Nagin said he expects the cost of the MWH deal to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA spokesman Ronnie Simpson said Thursday that while federal officials have not reviewed the MWH agreement, the agency generally reimburses the cost of such management contracts as long as the vendor oversees only projects that qualify for FEMA payments. FEMA generally is barred by federal law from paying for repairs that can't be shown to relate directly to storm damage.

City officials long have cited the lack of sufficient administrative support for recovery projects to explain slow progress in infrastructure repairs. For months, they have talked about hiring a private project manager to handle the mammoth task.

Money has arrived

But Nagin said officials said they could not award a management contract until they were confident they had money in hand to launch a significant number of public projects. That moment came late last year, the mayor said, when the Louisiana Recovery Authority allocated $294 million for infrastructure projects in New Orleans.

The Nagin administration also has other pools of cash at its disposal: a $300 million revolving loan fund approved by the Legislature, $117 million in infrastructure money released earlier by the LRA, $75 million from the sale of city bonds and $54 million in Federal Highway Administration dollars for improvements to major streets.

"You can't do a recovery without money, and the money has just become available," Nagin said. "The check is no longer in the mail. It's available to us, and we're starting to really rock and roll."

MWH will begin by coordinating some 150 projects for which city employees already have completed FEMA request forms known as "project worksheets." Nagin said the worksheets, which detail the level of damage and scope of rebuilding, carry a combined value of about $650 million. He added that another $250 million worth of repair requests is in the works.

While city officials will continue to set spending priorities, with criminal justice facilities and fire stations topping the list, Blakely said he expects MWH to step in make sure the myriad concurrent projects run smoothly.

For instance, he said, project managers will coordinate the purchase of materials needed for several unrelated projects so the city can buy in bulk to save money; City Hall will maintain control of the public bidding process. MWH also will coordinate projects geographically to reduce disruption to neighborhoods, he said.

In keeping with the strategy of the newly reorganized Office of Recovery and Development Administration, Blakely said he expects MWH to deliver visible results that will give fresh confidence to property owners leery of investing insurance settlements and Road Home grant awards in neighborhoods that are still languishing.

MWH employees also will work closely with city workers, sharing their expertise in the use of computer technology designed to manage major capital efforts, Blakely said.

MWH will earn as much as 8 percent of the cost of each project that it oversees, with simple projects that require minimal oversight, such as a roof replacement, worth a smaller percentage than a major construction project, Blakely said.

Working in 35 countries

As the company begins work, Uhler said he plans to transfer employees from across the country -- and from other parts of the world -- to help with the New Orleans effort. The initial staff likely will include some 30 employees, including 15 to 20 people already based in MWH's New Orleans' Poydras Street office.

Based in Broomfield, Colo., MWH employs more than 7,000 workers at 165 offices in 35 countries, according to a fact sheet provided by the company. The company opened its New Orleans office in 1979.

Nagin said that in deciding whether to seek proposals for a project management firm, he sought advice from several local business leaders, including developer Pres Kabacoff, Superdome manager Doug Thornton and Jay Lapeyre, chairman of the New Orleans Business Council. All three attended Thursday's news conference.

In all, 18 firms submitted proposals for the professional services contract, which under state procurement laws does not have to be awarded to the lowest bidder. Officials on Thursday did not name any of the other companies that sought the job.

MWH is no stranger to city government. The company won emergency contracts after Katrina to provide debris pickup and storm drain cleaning for city departments. It also assessed New Orleans' sewer and water systems for the Sewerage & Water Board.

Nagin said that as the pace of construction revs up under MWH management, the city may face a new kind of hurdle: finding enough local contractors to handle the work.

"The national economy has seen a downturn," he said. "Hopefully we can attract some contractors to come to this market."