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A Smart Move

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Mayor Ray Nagin has taken a lot of heat for many of his decisions " or failures to make decisions " in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, so it's only fair that he should get praise for hiring an outside firm to manage and expedite more than $1 billion in city recovery projects. It was a smart move. I can't say whether MWH, a global engineering firm with more than 7,000 employees worldwide (60 in New Orleans pre-K), is any more qualified to handle the job than the 17 other firms that competed for the job. But even the mayor and city Recovery Director Dr. Ed Blakely readily acknowledged that the city flat-out couldn't handle the task on its own. MWH, one of the world's largest engineering firms, is no stranger to New Orleans. It has evaluated systems for the Sewerage and Water Board and handled emergency contracts for debris removal and storm drain cleaning for the city.

So why is it such a big deal that the city hired outside help?

For starters, the scope of the work is so large and so complicated that no city could possibly undertake it alone. As Blakely noted during a news conference announcing the selection of MWH, cities typically build one building, maybe two, a year " and that takes a concerted effort.

New Orleans needs several new police stations right now, plus more than a dozen new fire stations, a police headquarters, a new criminal justice complex, probably a hundred miles of new streets (not to mention new pipes in the ground beneath those streets), libraries, parks and other projects. If the city tried to coordinate all those projects in-house, it probably would never get started.

Which may explain why the recovery has taken so long to show signs of getting started, at least in the public sector. According to Nagin, the recovery couldn't get much traction until now because the money wasn't available. That has changed. 'The check is no longer in the mail," Nagin said last week, referencing hundreds of millions of dollars that have been allocated in the last six months. 'It's available to us, and we're starting to really rock and roll."

Nagin reiterated his prediction that 2008 will be a 'tipping point" in the city's recovery, but that's true only if MWH can produce the kind of large-scale construction coordination New Orleans needs. Which brings us to the second reason why hiring an experienced construction manager is a good idea: capacity. The city doesn't have it, and a big firm such as MWH does. The company also has a lot more expertise than the city, and it has all-important experience in dealing with FEMA.

MWH CEO Bob Uhler said only half-jokingly that the most qualified person to deal with FEMA is 'whoever was the last one to do it." Indeed, one of the most confounding aspects of the long recovery has been the massive amount of paperwork required by the federal government " and the fact that the rules of the game keep changing. MWH will not only manage construction contractors selected by the city, but it also will manage the paperwork and the check-offs required by FEMA.

In addition, the company will set up a Web-based communications system to let citizens know the status of each of the city's 6,000 individual recovery projects " once they get under way. Company officials showed off the system they designed for Kansas City, and Blakely said he hopes to see the New Orleans version debut sometime next month.

Finally, hiring an outside firm gives the city a huge measure of accountability that it wouldn't have if civil servants were managing all those projects. If MWH falls behind, it won't get paid. That alone should speed things up.

Even with a large outside firm coordinating all the city's projects, this recovery is going to take years. It's too early to confirm that 2008 will be the 'tipping point" that Nagin predicts, but for now most folks would probably settle for it being a 'starting point."

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