A conversation with Ghassan Korban, Executive Director, Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, and Radhika Fox, CEO, US Water Alliance
Radhika: If you weren’t using your professional affiliation—how would you describe who are you and what you do?
Ghassan: This might sound surprising, but I’ve always said I am a social worker first. And I am! The majority of my work involves managing situations involving people. I like to think this is one of my strengths. I always try to understand people’s perspectives and how to move the work forward with that in mind.
Beyond that, I’m someone who’s solving one of the biggest water-related challenges in the United States and possibly in the world. Generally, I describe myself as a public servant who’s trying to do good for the public and for my customers.
Radhika: You recently retired as Public Works Commissioner after serving the City of Milwaukee for 31 years. What motivated you to leave the city you called home for so long to lead the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans?
Ghassan: It was hard leaving Milwaukee, a community I love and have worked to make better for so many years. But, I knew I wasn’t done with public service. I wanted to find a new exciting and challenging opportunity. And I really wanted to work more deeply on water. I was blessed and fortunate enough to find that opportunity in New Orleans. There’s no more exciting opportunity out there than leading the Sewerage and Water Board here. It’s incredibly challenging. Some days are overwhelming, but I also clearly see the opportunities and where we’re heading. I’m excited about it! I made the right move.
Radhika: You mentioned exciting opportunities in New Orleans. What is it that you want to accomplish in the near term?
Ghassan: My priorities in the near term and the long term are the same. I think it’s important to be constant in your priorities, especially in the midst of so many challenges. I’m focused on three main things. First, I walked into a utility that’s not well received or regarded—we have a poor brand. What’s top on my list is restoring trust in the brand. I want to bring excellence in customer service to the forefront. I’m focused on changing one mind at a time across the board. We want to be held with high regard by all our customers.
I walked into a fiscally depleted utility. Because of some recent events, all cash reserves are depleted. We’re strapped, and I’m focused on bringing financial stability. That starts with bringing attention to the needs and how real they are.
The third priority is I also want to draw a big vision. For what we provide, ours is the most crucial utility in the city. Without us, the city can’t survive. We need to draw a big vision for New Orleans, because what served us for over a hundred years needs to be replaced with something new. We need to overhaul the system. I want to create a vision of sustainability, resiliency, and a standard of making investments to build the utility New Orleans needs for the next 100 years and beyond.
I also want to draw a big vision. For what we provide, ours is the most crucial utility in the city. Without us, the city can’t survive. We need to draw a big vision for New Orleans, because what served us for over a hundred years needs to be replaced with something new.
Radhika: Your vision is a One Water vision! Say more about what “One Water” means to you?
Ghassan: The Alliance’s approach to One Water is spot on! When you think about One Water, it’s the most organic and logical concept I’ve heard of. I wonder why it took so long for us as an industry to get here. It’s both a genius and a basic concept. My world here in New Orleans forces the One Water approach to the most practical level. It’s the same water whether you’re drinking, treating, reclaiming, or managing it when it rains. It’s a circular system and you’re losing efficiency if you treat those responsibilities as separate ones. I believe the Sewerage and Water Board has a unique environment that screams One Water, and I’m not just saying it to say it. How many utilities enjoy having the responsibility of all three systems under one roof? We can truly become the model of how to apply One Water comprehensively.
Radhika: What are you reading these days?
Ghassan: I love to read. I usually read novels that help me learn about different cultures. It’s my escape instead of traveling. Two books come to mind: “And the Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini is set in Afghanistan. It’s such a beautiful, emotional, touching book where you really learn about the culture. Another one I like is set India. It’s called “A Fine Balance.” It’s the saddest book I ever read, but it does a great job describing Indian culture and what it offers.
I also just finished reading “Bayou Farewell” about saying goodbye to the Cajun coast, salty marshes, and the livelihoods of fisherman. The author, Mike Tidwell, is a journalist who hitchhiked on boats with fisherman, lived with them, and wrote about the erosion of the Gulf Coast. I just started reading “The Rising Tide.” Talk about a scary book! I just started and I know I’ll enjoy it, but it’s also very… sobering in terms of what mother nature can do and what we need to do to prepare for it in New Orleans.
Radhika: What was the best advice you ever received?
Ghassan: It’s advice a church elder shared with me many years ago as I was raising my four children. She said: “Don’t ever take anything personal. Nothing your kids are doing is about you. It’s about them trying to grow up.” It’s by far most effective and useful advice I’ve ever gotten—with my family and in my work.