Rain threat has Big Easy jittery
Pumps still iffy after deluge
NEW ORLEANS — With debris from last weekend’s flash flood still piled on sidewalks and their city under a state of emergency, New Orleans residents prepared Friday for more rain forecast to tax the city’s malfunctioning pump system.
The city scrambled to repair fire-damaged equipment at a power plant and shore up its drainage system less than a week after a flash flood from torrential rain overwhelmed the city’s pumping system and inundated many neighborhoods. The municipal pumping system is supposed to move water out of the low-lying city.
Annie Hutchins said she’s “traumatized” every time she sees clouds in the sky since a flood last Saturday. She had to walk through knee-high water to get to her house in the Treme neighborhood.
“It’s a little bit unnerving that we were told everything
was working, and the next day the story was a little bit different, and then the next day the story was a lot different,” she said. “I’m the kind of person that trusts anyone until they prove otherwise. So, I don’t feel like I have a lot of reason to trust what I’m being told anymore.”
A broken control panel on a turbine had been fixed by Friday morning, but the system remained well below full power, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at a morning news conference. The turbine powers some of the city’s pumps.
“We remain at risk until additional turbines are back up,” Landrieu said, adding that he hopes that will happen by the end of the month. Still, he said, “panic is not where we need to be right now.”
He said the latest turbine to go offline will be powered up over 24 hours. Meanwhile, Landrieu said, 26 generators have been ordered and will remain through hurricane season.
He also said a location was being set up Friday for residents to get sandbags should they want to take the extra precaution of sandbagging their homes.
Officials closed schools for the week and urged residents to move their vehicles to higher ground and to stay off roadways during rainstorms.
T.J. Pitre, 36, and his wife said they have a plan in case they need to evacuate this weekend.
“We have food and water bottles that I keep in my top shelf in my closet,” he said. “My wife is really good at being on top of these things. We have two cats, and she has all of their documents ready to go as well.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards described his emergency declaration, which would allow the federal government to financially assist the city in its recovery from the flooding, as a precautionary measure.
The National Weather Service forecast a 60 percent chance of rain Friday, primarily in the late morning and afternoon, with a chance that heavy rainfall could lead to more flooding.
The city’s infrastructure had been crumbling for years before the devastation unleashed in 2005 by levee breaches in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. The federal government earmarked billions of dollars for repairs and upgrades after the hurricane, but the problems have persisted.
Streets are pockmarked with potholes and sinkholes. The city’s water system has been plagued by leaks from broken pipes and power failures leading to boil-water advisories.
Officials feared that even a common thunderstorm would test the system’s reduced capacity.
The extended flood risk was especially nerve-racking to New Orleans residents, who are gearing up for the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane flooded 80 percent of the city and killed hundreds of residents.
“This is bringing back Katrina memories,” resident Heather Wright said Friday. “I’m remembering not to take things for granted, like getting in my car. It’s affecting my quality of life.
“Had our pumps been working I think we would have still had flooding but not to the extent that we did.”
Shortly after last weekend’s flooding, the leaders of the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans stated that all 121 of the city’s pumps were operating during Saturday’s storm. But on Tuesday, amid deepening skepticism from the public, officials admitted that eight pumps had been out of service when the rain began. On Thursday, board officials said 16 pumps were not working during the floods, according to news reports.
Under normal conditions, the New Orleans drainage and pumping system was designed to handle about an inch of rain an hour during the first hour of a storm, with the capability of handling a half-inch of rain per hour after that. Last Saturday’s storm dropped as much as 9 inches of rain in four hours.
“Some parts of our system did not operate as they should have, which is disappointing because it contradicts information that I was given to provide to the public. Our staff was not forthright, which is unacceptable,” said Cedric Grant, executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board.
At a hearing Tuesday, New Orleans council members vowed to investigate how the city could appear to be so unprepared for flooding just as the region heads into the peak of hurricane season.
Among the residents affected by the recent flooding was Pattye Brignac, 62, who said water levels rose up to 3 feet in her neighborhood. During the storm, her cat drowned and her car got damaged with water.
“The water just stood there for six hours,” she said Friday. “We’re still cleaning up our street.”
Brignac didn’t learn until a few days after the flood that some drainage pumps had been offline. For that, she said, she’s disappointed in city officials and they should be held accountable. “There’s no excuse for not realizing that their equipment was not working,” she said.
Wright said that as a native of the coastal city, she is accustomed to frequent flooding and considers it a part of life. New Orleans lies up to 10 feet below sea level and is mostly surrounded by water.
“I’ve lived in New Orleans all my life, so water is in my DNA. I survived Hurricane Katrina and lived through that, but this” — last Saturday’s flooding — “was the highest I’ve ever seen the water get since that time,” Wright said.
On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration increased its forecast for tropical weather systems this year. It now expects 14 to 19 named storms, including between two and five major hurricanes.
John Flemming and Andrea Dube fill sandbags Friday in New Orleans as the threat of more flooding from rainstorms kept the city on edge. One resident said the potential for flooding and the fear that pumps could be overwhelmed are “bringing back Katrina memories.”