Mayor Landrieu: Congress must take proactive disaster approach

The words “resiliency” and “entrepreneurship” were not in the New Orleans lexicon before Hurricane Katrina, according to Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Today, they are nearly inextricable from initiatives at City Hall and elsewhere, having been elevated to near catch-phrase status.

For example, the city’s $141 million federal grant-funded plan to improve infrastructure and storm water control is known as the Gentilly Resiliency District. And later this month, the ninth annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week takes place.

But the conversation at the Morial Convention Center during which Landrieu made his observation Thursday morning (March 9) was less about him being a New Orleans booster and more about how he believes cities and the federal government should use a broader, proactive approach to lessen their risk from disasters – whether they be natural, man-made or fiscal.

The mayor was part of a discussion at Res/Con, the homegrown conference launched in 2012 that brings together government officials, emergency response personnel, researchers and the private sector to discuss disaster management. Zurich North America CEO Mike Foley was also part of the discussion moderated by NOLA Media Group President Tim Williamson.

While Landrieu revisited city and state history from the 2005 hurricane season, he framed his comments in the context of more recent events – ranging from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and last month’s Lake Oroville Dam scare in California to the ascension of Donald Trump as president.

Landrieu was lieutenant governor when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit Louisiana in 2005. He recalled how his staff was “immediately morphed” from what was basically a culture and tourism promotion unit into one focused on emergency response and recovery. Government and business need that type of flexibility to withstand and return from catastrophes, he said.

“How do you get prepared for what you know what’s on your way and what you don’t know about? How do you rebuild?” are questions Landrieu said government and business leaders should be asking. A resiliency strategy covers these scenarios, and the lack of one becomes apparent when risks emerge out of nowhere, he said.

“The people below the California dam didn’t expect that risk,” Foley added.

In just the first few weeks of the Trump administration, the federal government has been called on to respond to the Lake Oroville Dam threat, wildfires in Kansas and Oklahoma, and several severe winter storms across the country, including one in February that spawned what was tabbed the strongest tornado ever to hit New Orleans. In all, there have been 27 federal disaster declarations since Trump took office on Jan. 20.

Landrieu noted that the initial version of the federal budget from the Trump administration includes cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Washington’s first-responder organization that has poured billions of dollars into local Katrina recovery efforts. Money for FEMA, the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration is being eyed to bolster hiring for Border Protection as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Adequate funding for FEMA will be essential to ensure the federal government can react to crises, Landrieu said, but it is also important to place an emphasis, perhaps a greater one, on resilience. If you improve a city’s ability to withstand a natural disaster, the federal government isn’t looking at such steep recovery costs in the aftermath, he said.

It will ultimately be up to lawmakers to shift the priorities for agencies such as FEMA, which tend to be reactive rather than proactive, the mayor said.

“We just can’t seem to get Congress, in its day-to-day thinking, to spend on the front end rather than the back end” when the cost is inevitably higher, Landrieu said.

Res/Con was created, in part, to spread the wealth of knowledge and experience gained through southeast Louisiana’s recovery from hurricanes and the 2010 oil spill. It was rebranded two years ago, having originally been called the International Disaster Conference and Expo. Its subject matter has expanded to include topics such as energy, the global availability food and water, and cyber security.

Greater New Orleans Inc. and the Morial Convention Center are its chief backers.

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