"If a little rain can flood us, what will a hurricane do?" – Public Comment, City Council Meeting
Public confidence in New Orleans’ ability to manage stormwater has eroded in the wake of the latest Gulf Deluge. From Houston to Acadiana, from Livingston to St. Petersburg, bad governance worsens natural risks of flood water damaging residents’ property. As the past two weeks have unfolded, it has become more and more apparent that the institutions and infrastructure that are supposed to protect New Orleanians from flooding are both in need of a dramatic overhaul.
On July 22nd, there was flash flooding in Mid-City and Lakeview. Rain soaked Gentilly.
On August 5th, there was serious flash flooding. Mid-City, Treme, and Lakeview sustained the most water damage, but places that rarely see flooding were victim to this deluge including the French Quarter and Central Business District. This was not a small rain; saturated air from an overheated Gulf dumped between 5 and 9 inches over three hours. Over 800 properties and hundreds of cars flooded, and people were stranded for hours. (drone footage here)
On August 8th, City Council President Jason Williams called a Special Meeting. Representatives from the National Weather Service, Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Sewerage and Water Board (SWB), Department of Public Works (DPW), and the Army Corps of Engineers shared responsibility. We learned that inadequate communication and response that led to flooding and confusion across the city. Cedric Grant, head of SWB, offered his resignation. We learned that thousands of catch basins were clogged, fourteen pumps were down, and there were power outages that slowed drainage. In affected neighborhoods, the entire system was working at half capacity at best.
On Thursday, August 10, an electrical fire knocked out the last turbine powering key pumps. The Governor declared an emergency, schools closed, and people moved cars to higher ground. This time, SWB stated that 16 pumps were down; they continue to be out of service.
Today, there is rain in the forecast and the public is uneasy about the potential of more flooding. People are out in the streets, cleaning catch basins to supplement the work that DPW does too slowly. But the city must do much more to prevent flooding.
This all reminds us of the systemic failures in New Orleans’ flood protection after Katrina. Governmental failures turned a natural disaster that hit Mississippi into an awful “Federal Flood.” Independent reviews from the nation’s Civil Engineers moved Louisiana to form the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA). CPRA integrated levee operation with evacuation, planning, permitting, and coastal restoration. The CPRA has built many flood risk projects that had been only dreams.
New Orleans must take a page from that reformation and not fall victim to the idea the privatization will be the magic pill that fixes everything; it won’t. This climate disaster revealed big problems in government, but also real limits of the pumps and drainage network. We need green infrastructure to detain all that extra water while the pumps catch up. We need a new agency with urgency to fix the small system, get the pumps up, and communicate with drivers about flooded roads. We need full enforcement of the Council’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, Article 23 which requires that each new major development manage the stormwater on their site. A Water Authority could incentivize homeowners to install rainwater harvesting or permeable areas. New Orleans can integrate SWB and DPW into a Water Authority that implements the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan.
These deluges are happening more often. Pumps and drains are not enough. At best, the system moves one inch the first hour and half an inch each hour after. Pumps cannot handle 5 inches in an hour, and 4 inches in the two hours afterward. We need green infrastructure to restore an urban floodplain within our concrete lilypad.
We need your help! Join the Gulf Restoration Network and commit to a Flood Less New Orleans. Take action on your own property, with your neighbors, and talk to your public officials. Donate to help us help keep the city afloat.
Scott Eustis is GRN's Coastal Wetland Specialist. Natalie Montoya is GRN's Water Resources Intern