For New Orleanians, it was all too easy for images of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation to conjure memories of Hurricane Katrina, the 12th anniversary of which fell on Tuesday. On top of that, they braced for the storm to move on from Texas and put New Orleans’ crippled drainage system to the test. Though by Wednesday afternoon, forecasts showed that Harvey wouldn’t hit New Orleans directly, after flooding in early August, it’s understandable that many residents are skeptical about the city’s preparedness for heavy rain.
On Aug. 5, a storm dumping some 9 inches of rain in the course of just a few hours caused certain parts of New Orleans to flood dramatically. While the waters subsided quickly, the dramatic effects caused residents to wonder whether or not the drainage system was functioning as it should. Initially, Sewerage and Water Board officials assured New Orleanians — and Mayor Mitch Landrieu — that nothing was out of the ordinary, and that with such a high volume of rain in such a short time period, a certain amount of flooding was inevitable. But quickly, new information from the Sewerage and Water Board contradicted this assessment.
In the days and weeks following the storm, it came out in bits and pieces, emails and hearings, that in fact, 17 pumps had been out of operation due to routine maintenance, staff shortages or power failures. Many of those pumps served the neighborhoods that had received the most flooding. And just days after the flooding, one of the city’s strongest turbines responsible for powering the system, overheated. With three of the city’s five power turbines already offline, that left just one in operation.
The conclusion: The city’s drainage failed due to a combination of factors, including pump stations that were unstaffed, pumps that needed repair, and a limited power supply that caused some working pumps to be inoperable. A series of internal emails among Sewerage and Water Board employees revealed that some staff members were aware of the deficiencies. Four top officials resigned under pressure from the city.
New Orleans’ unique drainage system was installed a century ago to pump rainwater out of a city that lies below sea level. It sucks water out of catch basins and piping and into nearby bodies of water (Lake Pontchartrain, bayous and canals leading to Lake Pontchartrain). In most other cities, gravity does this work, but since so much of New Orleans is below sea level, it needs a little extra push.
More than half the pumps in the system are powered by in-house turbines developed as part of the original system. They operate on a now outdated 25-cycle power standard, which is less efficient than the standard 60-cycle system. While there is nothing objectively wrong with the lower cycle frequency, it makes repairs and replacement parts harder to come by. Jeff Hebert, chief resilience officer for New Orleans, says that the city has been in negotiations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency since Katrina over $150 million in funding to repair the turbines.
“We already knew that energy redundancy to Sewerage and Water Board was an issue,” Hebert says. “That was well underway.” He stresses that several of the turbines that were already down during the storm were offline because they were in various stages of being repaired as part of the deal with FEMA. What they didn’t know, says Hebert, is just how those repairs would affect the system’s overall capacity.
“I don’t think we know at this point,” he says. “I think we were told certain things, until we get an actual assessment, I just don’t think we know.”
New Orleans City Council recently approved a $26 million plan to conduct that assessment, as well as clean and fix thousands of catch basins, and create an early warning system for underpass flooding.
According to the Sewerage and Water Board, as of Wednesday the system was operating at 93 percent capacity with 107 of 120 pumps working. Two of the five turbines are operational, and a state emergency declaration allowed the city to bring in 26 backup generators in the case of power failure. They’ve promised all stations will be manned 24 hours a day. Still, City Hall is making efforts to be extremely transparent. The mayor issued a press release, noting:
“The City’s drainage and pumping system remains in a state of diminished drainage pumping capacity until turbines and additional pumps are restored.”
Clearly, most of what’s been done in the past month are stopgap solutions. Last year, a report by ProPublica quoted Houston officials saying that repairing outdated infrastructure was the key element in flood preparedness for that city. But New Orleans’ Hebert says mitigation strategies are better, and addressing the infrastructure itself is complicated.
“It’s immensely expensive and disruptive to add to the pipe system as it exists,” he says of the drainage system. Because of this, New Orleans’ Urban Water Plan is a multifaceted approach. It combines creating permeable surfaces with rain gardens and bioswales, alongside zoning ordinances that require newly constructed, large properties to be responsible for absorbing certain portion of their own runoff. The city is also working on the Gentilly Resilience District, a neighborhood-wide project in the low-lying Gentilly area that includes water gardens, canal enhancements and drainage improvements. But, Hebert stresses, none of this happens overnight.
“It’s not like we haven’t been thinking about this. We’ve got $200 million of projects that are moving forward,” he says. “It just takes a while to design, engineer and bid these things.”
Even when they’re built, there is no failsafe method to ensure a city won’t flood when it gets the type of rain New Orleans got last month, let alone what Houston has received during Harvey.
“It’s called mitigation for a reason,” Hebert says.
As for the Sewerage and Water Board, New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux contends the major problem is that it’s a separate entity. Last week, he recommended, as he has in the past, that the Board be brought under City Hall jurisdiction.
In an open letter to the mayor and City Council, Quatrevaux wrote, “Oversight can then be improved through policy, and citizens dissatisfied with the S&WB could complain at the polls when they received poor service.”
Nina Feldman is an independent journalist focused on audio production. She worked as a regular contributor to NPR member station WWNO in New Orleans and as editor at American Routes. Her work has also appeared on Marketplace, Morning Edition and PRI's The World.