Biden approves emergency declaration amid New Orleans drinking water threat

September 27, 2023

President Biden on Wednesday approved an emergency declaration for Louisiana, where authorities are scrambling to avert a drinking water crisis in New Orleans as salt water from the Gulf of Mexico threatens the drought-stricken Mississippi River.

Water levels have dropped low enough to make the river less resistant to mass saltwater flows north from the Gulf. The situation is known as “saltwater intrusion,” and it’s endangering drinking water systems in and around the city of New Orleans as well as smaller municipalities farther south. 

According to a White House statement, Biden’s action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate all disaster relief efforts. The aim is to alleviate any suffering by providing appropriate assistance to save lives and protect public health and safety.

The President has authorized FEMA to use its discretion to identify, mobilize, and provide necessary equipment and resources.

The federal emergency declaration comes after New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) signed her own emergency declaration on Friday in response to the threat, aiming to “thoroughly prepare” officials for impending impacts by allowing for the streamlining of state and federal agencies to deploy resources, if necessary. 

The nearby parish of Plaquemines has already been relying on  bottled water for months after salt water infiltrated its drinking water systems.

During a drinking water emergency in Jackson, Mississippi last year, FEMA reimbursed that state for public assistance and covered the cost of bottled water deliveries to impacted communities.

However, the threat of a federal a government shutdown if Congress doesn’t agree to pass fiscal year 2024 federal budget by midnight Saturday is adding a further obstruction to funding-strapped FEMA.

Following federal responses last month to the Maui wildfires and Hurricane Idalia in Florida, FEMA director Deanne Criswell said she’d implemented “immediate needs funding” and asked for a supplemental request of $16 billion. 

But as of September 19, FEMA was down to a balance sheet of just $2.4 billion. 

“Congress must work with us on the supplemental request that the Administration has made on the behalf of FEMA,” she had insisted in August.

PHOTO: Mississippi River at the Moonwalk, French Quarter, New Orleans, 2019

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