Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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12/14/2005
03:18 PM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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Needed: A Stronger Commitment To Rebuilding New Orleans

I don't want to trade places with Mike Centineo, the director of Safety and Permits in New Orleans. On the one hand, he must struggle to get his vital city department up and running after Katrina, conveying a lot of bad news to homeowners in the process. On the other, he goes home to a heavily damaged structure and faces the same challenges to rebuild as many of his fellow residents.

I don't want to trade places with Mike Centineo, the director of Safety and Permits in New Orleans. On the one hand, he must struggle to get his vital city department up and running after Katrina, conveying a lot of bad news to homeowners in the process. On the other, he goes home to a heavily damaged structure and faces the same challenges to rebuild as many of his fellow residents.The first time I reached Centineo, he wasted no time in telling me that he had homeowners in his office and dealing with them came before talking to the press. He softened the implied rebuke with, "If you know what I mean, brother," with the last word sounding more like "brotha" to northern California ears.

The next day he called back during a short lunch hour, devoting his break to telling InformationWeek how the city has expedited its home-inspection and emergency building-permit process. Before calling, Centineo had spent the morning handling 37 residents' emergency permit applications himself. Because of a lack of city funds, his department has no clerical staff.

The city conducted 92,000 inspections in 10 weeks, an amazing feat considering that many of the inspectors were from out of state and needed to be trained on a new system. The inspection process used to be based on paper forms. But a city software supplier, Accela Inc., lined up 25 Panasonic laptops and adapted its client software to them, enabling inspectors to rapidly record information with a stylus on XML forms. The information was uploaded electronically into the city's Accela Automation inspection and construction management system, saving time and money.

Because of that, homeowners in Houston or other remote locations could go to the city Web site, www.cityofno.com, and through a browser window watch the results as inspectors fanned out through the city. Each inspection covered 23 items on the status of a home, and homeowners could view the report by typing in their address. Day by day, the map of individual parcels was filled in with red, yellow, or green tags--a process that FEMA had predicted would take twice as long with twice the staff. "If a home has been red tagged, that doesn't necessarily mean it's slated for demolition. It means the building has been structurally damaged and must be shored up or propped up before anyone can return to it," Centineo explains. Out of a total of 127,400 homes, 5,529 have red tags on them.

Another 86,400 homes have been yellow tagged, including Centineo's, meaning owners may go into the buildings but they have sustained enough damage that repairs are necessary before they will become inhabitable.

To show what a yellow tag means, consider that Centineo's home, built 4 feet off the ground, still had water inside up to his front door lock. Accela CTO Richard Morrey, an unpaid adviser to the city in the storm's aftermath, accompanied Centineo on his first visit home, and the salt water had frozen the lock shut with rust. Centineo had to break into his home, he says.

"When the door opened, the smell that rolled out nearly bowled me off the steps," recalls Morrey. Many homes sat for days in 100-degree heat with polluted salt water soaking into them. Drywall, insulation, and woodwork all wick water upward, with mold growing on the damp surfaces. So everything in the house--flooring, rugs, furniture, clothes, drywall, and electrical wiring and fixtures--needed to be stripped clean to a height of 6 feet, Centineo says. Even his cabinets had been reduced to a pile of rubble on the kitchen floor. With contractors charging exorbitant prices, Centineo says, "I gutted the house myself."

When Centineo wanted to reconnect a gas line to his water heater, he found contracters bidding $1,200 to $1,700 on what he thought would be a $250 job. A shortage of skilled labor has led to extreme price inflation in most aspects of the building trades. Centineo decided to wait until prices returned to something resembling normal, but his experience is another clue to the obstacles to bringing the city's residents home.

Now it's his job to explain to the 300 homeowners who fill his offices each day that, if they are seeking to do extensive repairs on their buildings, the homes must be raised above the high-water mark, due to new regulations. That means if the owners of a ground-level, 2,200-square-foot brick ranch house want to rebuild, they might face an added $55,000 expense to elevate the house.

Some owners are likely to go elsewhere rather than rebuild, Centineo realizes. "There is still a limited tax base that is coming back. It's going to be tough," he notes.

As I said, I don't want to trade places with Mike Centineo. But I would like to see more resources put into his hands. If we want New Orleans rebuilt, why did the federal government stand by as half of the city's employees were laid off? Weren't these people going to be essential to the rebuilding process? What is the plan to help New Orleans rebuild? Similar to the plan to help New Orleans evacuate--that is, parts of it missing in action? Dedicated public officials will innovate, will do much with little, but they need more help if we're going to have a prayer of putting New Orleans back on its feet.

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