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New Orleans braces for new flooding

  • Heavy rains flood New Orleans streets in the historic Faubourg Marigny after city pumps were overwhelmed Aug. 5. TNS PHOTO



Los Angeles Times
Friday, August 11, 2017

Heather Wright is a New Orleans native, so she knows that flooding is a part of life in the city. 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,” Wright said Friday. “I survived Hurricane Katrina and lived through that, but this was the highest I’ve ever seen the water get since that time.”

By “this” she referred to flooding unleashed last Saturday after a heavy rainstorm overwhelmed the city’s compromised pumping system, and with many streets still flooded, city residents are bracing as a new round of heavy rain expected this weekend.

Officials said this week that at least 14 of 120 drainage pumps located throughout the city were out of service during last weekend’s storm because of power shortages and because of a lack of basic maintenance.

“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,” Cedric Grant, executive director of New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, said.

Grant on Tuesday said that, contrary to an earlier statement he made after the storm, the pumping system was not operating at its maximum capacity. He also acknowledged that there is “a lack of confidence from the public in the system’s abilities.”

Among the residents affected was Pattye Brignac, 62, who said water levels rose up to 3 feet in her neighborhood. During the storm, her cat escaped and 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 Saturday’s flood that some drainage pumps had been offline.

“I’m disappointed with city officials, and I believe they should be held accountable,” she said. “There’s no excuse for not realizing that their equipment was not working.”

In anticipation of the coming storm, Birgnac said she and her neighbors have been cleaning debris from a storm drain.

“We’re digging out buckets of mud and other people on our block are doing the same thing,” she said.

Many residents still cleaning up debris after last week’s flood were shocked a second time Thursday morning when they received an emergency text message warning them that the city’s drainage pumps were threatened again after a fire at a power plant damaged power for the city’s network of drainage pumps.

The controversy has caused internal conflicts between Mayor Mitch Landrieu and city officials. Grant announced Tuesday that he will retire in the fall.

With forecasters predicting a 60 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms through the weekend, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency in New Orleans, which would allow the federal government to financially assist the city to recover from disaster under certain circumstances.

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 that they have an 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.”

Officials said Sewerage and Water Board electricians and mechanics were working around-the-clock to repair the city’s drainage pumps and secure backup power.

For some residents, the city’s failure in ensuring its pumping systems were working at capacity resurfaced memories of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

“This is bringing back Katrina memories, Wright said. “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.”

On Friday, Landrieu said that a turbine damaged by the power plant fire had been repaired and would be working gradually throughout the days to come. He said the city had also ordered 26 generators as backup sources of power and that pumping stations in Algiers, New Orleans East and Lower Ninth Ward were not affected because they have diesel generators.

But for some residents, the damage from last week’s flood has placed doubt about the city’s abilities as the threat of another storm looms ahead.

“This is utter disregard for people who live here,” Wright said. “The city needs to get it right and people need to be held accountable.”