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Mayor LaToya Cantrell Sees New Orleans As A Coastal City

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority is working to rebuild marsh on the New Orleans landbridge.

When Mayor LaToya Cantrell took office last year, she pledged to improve green infrastructure and reduce flooding in the city. One of the biggest challenges has been funding. Now, the mayor is working with the state to rebuild marshes that protect the city - like Bayou Bienvenue and the New Orleans landbridge. She’s also filed a lawsuit against oil and gas companies that have dug canals in the marshes which have eroded over the years, contributing to land loss.

WWNO’s Tegan Wendland had a conversation with Cantrell about the progress she’s made so far.

Q: You came into office eager to implement better water management policies - reflecting on your first year in office, how much do you feel you've accomplished towards that goal?

Well, given that a week after I took office we had a major flood in the city of New Orleans - kind of amplifying the need for improved infrastructure in this city - having rainwater quickly become flood water - was something that we have had to live with in this city. But when it's compacted with failing infrastructure that has not been adequately maintained nor reinvested in, it has added an additional burden on an already failing and crumbling system. So it became an even greater priority for my administration to kind of speak truth to the environment that we're living in; our geography and also the frequency of rain events and climate change. So it was absolutely a priority. Looking at $147 million in grant money that the city had secured for green infrastructure but only two projects were approved - when we walk through the door today over 12 are approved. And so that is an example of how my administration has made infrastructure, green infrastructure – grey, as well - a priority… so that our people can see the benefits of these investments.

Q: And you mentioned some of the urban water management projects that are going on right now. They're funded by a variety of sources – FEMA, hazard mitigation grants, and special grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. How have you worked to diversify and strengthen those funding streams?

Well one is - make sure that we are working with all agencies tied to this funding, so with FEMA, with the state - at the table - creating or eliminating red tape that we found that was preventing these projects from moving faster. Bringing in an archaeologist in-house allowed us to free up processing time, upward of 180 days. So that's an example of how we've had to work with creating better processes and streamlining the process so that we can get these projects moving and out of the door and spending the grant money that we have been able to receive.

Q: So you've been working more closely with the state to restore the marshes outside of the city - the landbridge over by Slidell. How does this represent a change in thinking about the city's boundaries?

Well, I think for the city of New Orleans, particularly in this post-Katrina environment we have always been conscious of the various parishes that are vulnerable. Orleans doesn't sit by itself. And we recognize that on the front-end, right after Katrina, we are vulnerable. The city of New Orleans just joined other parishes in suing oil and gas. We went into filing a lawsuit on our own because our home charter allows for us to do that. But it did set the tone that – one, we're not alone, that we joined our other parishes that took the leap way before we did - like Plaquemines, like St. John. And that also just shows that we're not in this by ourselves.

Q: What motivated you to join in those lawsuits?

Well, the motivation came from the vulnerabilities that are real in the city of New Orleans - meaning we have to protect our people and property, and we have been damaged by offshore drilling. It is a fact. We have been damaged. And we need protections in the future and in order to get those protections you need money, and we need to build up our marshlands. You know we need to do everything possible to sustain storms that are becoming more aggressive. And right now we're vulnerable.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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