Streetwise: Learning to cope with flooding—always—in New Orleans

Streetwise: Learning to cope with flooding—always—in New Orleans

Flooding in New Orleans is a Sensitive Issue
By Carey Clouse

Flooding in New Orleans is a sensitive issue. For it was the water — not the wind — that devastated this city in 2005. And even two years after the storm, residents remain painfully aware of the lasting destruction that Hurricane Katrina inflicted.

Violent waters toppled houses and rearranged cars, rocked signage and shattered windows. In the weeks after the storm, floodwaters (PDF) stagnated in houses, rotting out wood and corroding metals. A murky sludge permeated all surfaces, infiltrating secured spaces, soaking treasured belongings and compressing the soft earth that defines this geography. When the waters finally receded, the built environment wore the murky finish of a bronze bathtub ring.

Along with this rusty reminder of the flood, New Orleans’ enduring devastation is too fresh to ignore. So when heavy rains pool water underfoot, and the streets of New Orleans again become watery canals, you’d think that New Orleanians would begin to get nervous.

In truth, very few people actually seem fazed when storms come inland. New Orleans’ bowl-shaped interior floods so often that its seasoned residents have learned to take it in stride. Monsoon-like showers sweep in from the Gulf Coast, dumping precipitation relentlessly. Streets become fluid arteries, pumping stations run at full bore, and heaving canals churn this runoff into the great reservoir of Lake Ponchartrain. Meanwhile, native New Orleanians apply a host of coping strategies.

Most New Orleanians have a sixth sense for severe showers, and they park accordingly. Low streets are left in favor of higher ground. Slight differences in elevation, hardly perceptible to the human eye, are expertly assessed by drivers. Local knowledge and historic precedents become crucial tools for self preservation. Weather predictions are consulted, galoshes get pulled from trunks, and the median strips these locals call the Neutral Ground become safe havens for herds of vehicles.

Only the young and the reckless find themselves inconvenienced when heavy rains come to town. Call me the former: surrounded this week by a knee-high moat, marooned twenty-five feet from the bumper of my car by the unfortunate location of an impromptu waterway and a precious pair of white linen slacks. The same tributary provided an opportunity for my coworker’s new Subaru to suffer through its first real bath; floodwaters crept up the length of the door and then deviously seeped inside. What subterfuge!

Sneaky though it may seem, flooding is old hat to New Orleans, and certainly come as no surprise to her residents. This routine occurrence is a simple reminder that a city sitting in a crater will occasionally get wet. And when these floodwaters creep upon New Orleans, rest assured that her people will be prepared.

Tags: new orleansfloodinghurricane katrina

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