Airport gets cash to ready for worst; Hazard plan to steel site against storms

Should Louis Armstrong International Airport ever stare down another hurricane of Katrina's strength, operators expect to have a plan in place to deflect much of the fury. FEMA granted the New Orleans airport $49,155 this month to put together a...


Should Louis Armstrong International Airport ever stare down another hurricane of Katrina's strength, operators expect to have a plan in place to deflect much of the fury.

FEMA granted the New Orleans airport $49,155 this month to put together a plan that would reduce its vulnerability to natural disasters.

The money will be used to hire outside consultants who will outline projects that are the most needed, said Mario Rodriguez, the airport's deputy director of planning and development.

"And the projects, they're going to be big," he said.

The effort, known as a hazard mitigation plan, will look at shoring buildings against wind damage and fortifying the airport's electrical and water systems, Rodriguez said. Work on the plan, the first of its kind for the airport, will begin this hurricane season and finish within a year, he said.

Immediately after Katrina, the airport became a way station of the National Guard and thousands of refugees. The heavy foot traffic was as responsible for damage to the airport as the storm's winds, Rodriguez said.

"It wasn't meant to house 30,000 people for three days," he said.

Rodriguez estimated the airport sustained about $27 million in damage related to Katrina. Insurance has covered $21 million, and FEMA has released an additional $3 million for disaster relief, he said. The airport has also appealed to the Federal Aviation Administration for more aid.

"We did very, very well, comparatively speaking," Rodriguez said.

The hazard mitigation plan will separate the airport from surrounding government entities when competing for future disaster relief, said Jeff LaCour, a hazard mitigation specialist with FEMA. Federal grant application rules require a plan be in place before money can be allocated.

"So the next time there's a disaster or the next time there are federal funds available, they'll be able to apply for a grant," LaCour said.

LaCour said FEMA has allocated $4.5 million for hazard mitigation plans throughout Louisiana since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Local jurisdictions are responsible for adding about $1.5 million to that total, he said.

Money for the airport's plan comes on the heels of a larger federal grant for local parishes to complete hazard mitigation plans of their own. Jefferson Parish, along with Acadia, Jefferson Davis, St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes, each received $112,500 from FEMA to pay for disaster prevention consultants.

When asked whether the damage caused by Katrina would have been lessened had a mitigation plan been in place in 2005, Rodriguez said the storm probably would have defied all attempts to defend against it.

"I don't think anybody could have sat there and said, 'Let's think of the worst thing that could happen,' " he said, "and I don't think anyone would've come up with that one."

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Richard Rainey can be reached at rrainey@timespicayune.com or (504) 883-7052.

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