Hurricane-Damaged Drinking Water and Wastewater Facilities: Impacts, Needs, and Response
Hurricane-Damaged Drinking Water and
Impacts, Needs, and Response
Specialist in Resources and Environmental Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Throughout the Gulf Coast region, high winds and water from Hurricanes Katrina
and Rita in 2005 damaged a wide range of public service facilities, including drinking
water supply and treatment and sewage treatment plants. Restoring those facilities is
part of the overall cleanup and restoration process. This report describes impacts of the
storms on drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities and efforts to assess
damages and needs to repair and reconstruct damaged systems. Full facility restorations
in some locations may take many months, and costs of needed repairs are largely
unknown. To meet those long-term recovery needs, affected communities are likely to
rely heavily on federal assistance in emergency appropriations acts, as well as traditional
water infrastructure programs, principally those administered by the Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In September 2005,
the Senate passed a bill intended to streamline delivery of funds through existing EPA
programs to repair storm-damaged sewage treatment and drinking water plants (S.
including $5 billion for water infrastructure projects (S. 1765/S. 1766, H.R. 3958). No
further action occurred on any of these proposals during the 109th Congress.
Water Infrastructure Facilities Affected by the 2005 Hurricanes
Damages at many water infrastructure facilities from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita
included loss of electric power to pump, process, and treat raw water supply and
wastewater. Initially following the storms, some plants were able to operate temporarily
on backup generators, so long as fuel was available. In addition, flooding and structural
damage disabled services in a number of locations, including New Orleans. Overall, a
large number of systems were affected by the two disasters. For example, within a few
days after Hurricane Katrina, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that
more than 1,220 drinking water systems (many of them very small, in terms of customers
served) and more than 200 wastewater treatment facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and
Alabama had been affected.
As electric power was restored, many of the affected systems were able to restore
needed services (especially facilities in Alabama, which was not in the center of the first
storm’s path). Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, EPA reported that about 30% of the
affected drinking water and 40% of the affected wastewater facilities were again
operating. However, many of the inoperable drinking water and wastewater plants serve
large numbers of customers. In Biloxi, for example, officials were unable to re-pressurize
the drinking water system because of broken and inaccessible water mains and valves.
One-third of the sewage treatment facilities in Harrison County, Mississippi (serving
Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach, and Pass Christian) were destroyed or very severely
damaged. Similarly, drinking water and sewage service for more than a million customers
in New Orleans (discussed below) was severely disrupted.
EPA reported that by October 10, 2005 — following Hurricane Rita, which hit Texas
and parts of Louisiana on September 24 — more than 85% of drinking water and 95% of
wastewater treatment facilities in the region were operational.1 By December, EPA
reports indicated that all wastewater treatment plants in Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas
were considered to be operational. In Louisiana, a small number of wastewater treatment
plants were not yet operational, including three large facilities serving about 150,000
customers. Nearly all drinking water treatment plants throughout the region also had
restored at least partial service, although about 5% remained under boil water advisories
for bacterial contamination. After the storms, EPA staff assisted state and local officials
in assessing all drinking water and wastewater plants in the region, including more than
For damaged facilities, steps involved in restoring service included drying out and
cleaning engines, pumps, and lift stations; testing and repairing waterlogged electrical
systems; testing for toxic chemicals and harmful bacteria that may have infiltrated pipes
and plants; restoring pressure (drinking water distribution systems); activating
disinfection units; restoring bacteria needed to treat wastes (sewage treatment plants); and
cleaning, repairing, and flushing distribution and sewer lines.
Impacts of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’s water and sewer system were
particularly severe. In the central portion of the city, in addition to electric power,
extensive damage occurred from flooding of treatment plants, drinking water distribution
lines, collector and interceptor sewers, and the water system’s powerplant. Even after
restoration of electricity, cleanup and recovery at flooded water and sewage treatment
plants is taking considerable time. The first task was to remove excess stormwater, which
required extensive repair of the city’s stormwater system, including levees and drainage
pumps. Once floodwaters were addressed, drinking water restoration became the next
priority. The largest of the city’s two drinking water plants, located where the worst
flooding took place, was completely underwater for nearly two weeks. It was repaired
sufficiently to provide flow (i.e., for fire fighting), but may not be capable of providing
1 For information, see EPA’s website at [http://www.epa.gov/katrina/activities.html], including
weekly activity reports provided through mid-November 2005. Periodic updated information is
now available at [http://www.epa.gov/katrina/index.html].
potable water for some time, officials say. The issue with regard to drinking water in this
area is large numbers of waterline breaks resulting from house connections that were
damaged when trees fell, fire hydrants that were damaged by debris or debris cleanup
efforts, and lines that were crushed or fractured by the weight of floodwaters. (An
ongoing problem across the Gulf Coast region is that, as hurricane debris is cleared, fire
hydrants and water meters are often torn out of the ground, causing leaks that must be
repaired, sometimes more than once, forcing water lines to be shut down and flushed in
order to allow the system to operate.)
For flooded areas, sewage treatment often is the last thing back on line, because
plants are at the lowest point of the city, to take advantage of gravity, and thus were under
the deepest water. New Orleans’s two wastewater treatment plants were damaged: the
larger facility, which serves 1.2 million customers, was flooded until the end of
September 2005, and standing water significantly damaged pumps and electrical
equipment. This plant partially restored service in October and was able to provide
secondary treatment of wastes by mid-November, but numerous continuing operational
problems persist even one year later, including power disruptions, leaks, and equipment
difficulties. The smaller facility, located on the west bank of the Mississippi River,
experienced extensive wind damage, but was judged to be fully functional three weeks
after Hurricane Katrina. The city’s public works officials reportedly believe that much
of the sewer system had probably been damaged, and cracks, leaks, and breaks will need
to be fixed by tearing up roads (although road repairs already may be required, as part of
the overall cleanup effort), a potentially lengthy repair process.2
Ironically, one problem facing New Orleans and other communities is a lack of
customers. Although the majority of water and sewer facilities have been able to resume
operations, some are not in use, because displaced citizens have been unable to return.
Some of the systems considered to be operational are serving only a small percentage of
their pre-storm customers. With little or no population present for utilities to serve, there
is insufficient demand for drinking water or waste flowing into wastewater treatment
plants for normal operations, and utilities are unable to collect revenues needed to pay
existing bills, repair or maintain their facilities, or make payments on bonds, leading to
concern about possible defaults in some cases, especially by small utility systems.
Damage and Needs Assessments
Under authority of the National Response Plan,3 EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers staff have conducted assessments of water infrastructure systems, assisting state
2 Much of the New Orleans water infrastructure was built more than 75 years ago. Even before
the hurricane, the Sewerage and Water Board, which is responsible for providing drinking water,
sewage treatment, and drainage services to more than one million customers, had a $1 billion
capital improvement program to address long-term maintenance and repair needs, including
compliance with a 1998 court-ordered sewer system consent decree.
3 The National Response Plan (NRP) is the framework to coordinate emergency response
activities of the federal government with those of state, local, and tribal governments and the
private sector. It is organized by 15 Emergency Support Functions, such as public works and
engineering, each with a designated coordinator, primary agencies, and support agencies. The
text of the NRP is available at [http://www.dhs.gov/xprepresp/committees/editorial_0566.shtm].
and local government personnel to evaluate damages. Efforts continue throughout the
region to determine facilities’ needs for repair or rebuilding.
EPA cautions that evaluations are ongoing, and the status of some facilities is still
unclear (especially small systems), even more than one year after the 2005 hurricanes.
In particular, facilities determined to be operational may not be providing the required
level of treatment. For example, some wastewater treatment plants in Alabama and
Mississippi are operating at limited capacity or are providing only primary treatment of
sewage, not full secondary or better, as required by law and to meet water quality
standards. Similarly, New Orleans’s wastewater treatment plants, while considered
operational and in compliance with permit limits as of January, continue to face structural
and other problems. Many require repair or reconstruction. Facility restorations, full or
partial, are likely to take many months, and costs of needed repairs are unknown or, where
available, are considered preliminary.
In September 2005, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) issued a very
preliminary estimate that $2.25 billion will be needed to repair or replace drinking water
infrastructure at public water systems that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The
estimates were presented with significant caveats, however, because of the limited
information available on the extent of actual damage.4 The EPA Inspector General issued
two reports on the status of restoring public water supplies in Louisiana and Mississippi,
noting that officials estimate that about $615 million will be needed in those two states
for public water system replacements and repairs due to Hurricane Katrina.5
EPA and states have taken time to develop estimates of needs for reconstructing
sewage treatment facilities throughout the region. As of February, Louisiana and
Mississippi officials estimated that costs to repair those states’ damaged wastewater
infrastructure exceed $1.3 billion, with about $1.2 billion needed just in New Orleans.6
As with estimates for drinking water facilities, however, all such estimates are considered
preliminary and very rough. In April, results of a study conducted by the Water
Environment Federation and Black & Veatch Corp. were released. This study sought to
provide a general assessment of infrastructure damage to wastewater treatment plants and
collection systems in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana (estimated to be $1.2 billion),
as well as an estimate of the effect on the financial stability of utilities that lost a
significant portion of their rate base (another $163 million).7 It noted that damages might
have been worse, and costs estimates higher, but for the fact that many concrete structures
withstood high winds, flooding, and storm surges better than anticipated.
4 American Water Works Association, “Restoring Public Water Supply Systems in the Aftermath
of Hurricane Katrina: A Preliminary Cost Estimate,” Sept. 23, 2005.
5 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Inspector General, “Evaluation Report: EPA’s
and Mississippi’s Efforts to Assess and Restore Public Drinking Water Supplies after Hurricane
Katrina,” Report No. 2006-P-00011, Feb. 14, 2006; “Evaluation Report: EPA’s and Louisiana’s
Efforts to Assess and Restore Public Drinking Water Systems after Hurricane Katrina,” Report
No. 2006-P-00014, Mar. 7, 2006.
6 Scott Stine, U.S. EPA Region 6, and Chris Thomas, U.S. EPA Region 4, Personal
communications, March 16, March 20, 2006.
7 Water Environment Federation, Assessment of Reconstruction Costs and Debt Management for
Wastewater Utilities Affected by Hurricane Katrina, April 2006, 23 p.
Meeting Needs for Repair and Reconstruction
As previously noted, assessments of needed water infrastructure repairs and
associated cost estimates are incomplete for now, but could be substantial for systems that
were directly affected. How those communities will pay for repairs is a challenge for
public officials at all levels of government. The 109th Congress considered how to assist
their activities and enacted appropriations but no other specific measures.
While repairing storm-damaged facilities is the most recent funding needed by water
infrastructure systems in the Gulf Coast, it is not the sole need there. Throughout the
United States, wastewater and drinking water utilities face significant investment needs
to meet the treatment and performance requirements of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and
the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). According to the most recent estimates by EPA
and states, the nation’s public water and wastewater treatment systems need more than
$460 billion over the next 20 years to construct and upgrade facilities in order to comply
with those laws and to provide safe and healthy water.8 The federal government is
unlikely to provide 100% of that amount, and policymakers already have been debating
how to meet those existing needs, which of course do not reflect additional costs to
reconstruct hurricane-damaged structures.
Over the years, Congress has authorized a number of programs to assist local
communities in addressing water supply, drinking water, and wastewater treatment
problems. These programs generally are intended to aid communities in constructing
facilities to comply with federal drinking water regulations and clean water rules in order
to prevent the discharge of harmful levels of sewage wastes into surface waters. They
have different types of financing mechanisms (some provide grants, others authorize
loans), various administering agencies, and other differences, such as eligible community
size.9 These programs comprise the traditional sources of federal assistance that
communities use to meet their water infrastructure needs.
Congress also has authorized a number of programs that can provide emergency
assistance to repair and restore drinking water, wastewater, and related water
infrastructure systems and facilities. These include programs administered by the Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), EPA, the Corps of Engineers, and the U.S.
Department of Agriculture.10 Responding to the 2005 hurricane disasters, the 109th
Congress provided more than $62 billion in emergency assistance in P.L. 109-61 and P.L.
Approximately $7.8 billion was targeted for infrastructure repair, but was not limited to
8 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Watersheds Needs Survey 2000 Report to
Congress, August 2003, EPA 832-03-001; Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and
Assessment, Third Report to Congress, June 2005,EPA 816-R-04-001. For additional
information, see CRS Report RL31116, Water Infrastructure Needs and Investment: Review and
Analysis of Key Issues, by Claudia Copeland and Mary Tiemann.
9 For additional information, see CRS Report RL30478, Federally Supported Water Supply and
Wastewater Treatment Programs.
10 For a review of federal emergency assistance programs, see CRS Report RS22248, Federal
Disaster and Emergency Assistance for Water Infrastructure Facilities and Supplies, by Claudia
Copeland, Mary Tiemann, and Nicole T. Carter.
drinking water and wastewater facilities.11 Eligible work is either classified as emergency
work (e.g., debris removal) or permanent work intended to restore a damaged facility to
its pre-disaster design.
The affected communities are likely to rely primarily on FEMA’s federal disaster
grant assistance to repair and rebuild storm-damaged structures. Where emergency funds
are insufficient (for example, if FEMA denies a request to pay for reconstruction beyond
that needed to return to pre-disaster status), communities may turn to funding under the
traditional water infrastructure aid programs, especially those administered nationally by
the Department of Agriculture (loan and grant programs for water and waste disposal
projects in communities of less than 10,000 persons) and by EPA. Under EPA’s
programs, authorized in the CWA and the SDWA, federal grants of appropriated funds
are used to capitalize state revolving fund (SRF) programs. States, in turn, make loans
from the SRFs to local communities for needed wastewater and drinking water projects.12
Other legislation was proposed in response to the 2005 hurricanes. For example, the
Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act (S. 1765/S. 1766, H.R. 3958) sought $1.035 billion
in appropriations for EPA to provide infrastructure assistance in Louisiana, plus $4 billion
directly to the state of Louisiana for repair, reconstruction, and improvement of storm-
affected wastewater and drinking water infrastructure systems. Other legislation included
changes to EPA-administered funding programs, but not additional appropriations. On
September 27, 2005, the Senate passed S. 1709, the Gulf Coast Emergency Water
Infrastructure Assistance Act. It would have modified the revolving loan provisions of
the Clean Water Act to provide favorable treatment (such as forgiveness of loan principal
and extended repayment) for sewage treatment repair or rebuilding projects in Alabama,
Mississippi and Louisiana. The Safe Drinking Water Act already includes similar
provisions that are not restricted to emergency conditions. S. 1709 would have permitted
those states to provide assistance for two years for wastewater and drinking water projects
not included on a state’s Intended Use Plan, since many of the systems affected by
Hurricane Katrina are believed to not be included in the plans which generally are
required before a project can be funded under either the CWA or SDWA. There was no
further congressional action on any of these proposals during the 109th Congress.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and subsequently after Hurricane
Rita, attention focused on assistance for individual victims and management of the overall
response effort. In subsequent months, attention turned to long-term recovery of affected
residents, housing, and essential public services. As those efforts proceed, Congress may
consider other policy options and issues, including with regard to water infrastructure
11 U.S. Congress, Senate Budget Committee, “Informed Budgeteer, No. 5,” Sept. 12, 2005.
12 For information on public assistance for repair or replacement of disaster-damaged facilities,
see [http://www.epa.gov/katrina/waterissues/funding.html]. On this website, see “Summary of
Federal Funding for Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and
Rita in Louisiana,” Feb. 13, 2006, and “Summary of Federal Funding for Water and Wastewater
Infrastructure Damaged by Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi’s Six Southern Counties,” Feb. 20,