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New Orleans August storm and flood updates: Pumps status, SW&B removals, and presentations

A lot happened this afternoon at City Hall

Extensive flooding on Gentilly and Paris Avenue during the August 5 storm.
Photo by Eric Craig

New Orleans City Council wanted answers from various city officials on why the city underwent extensive flooding in several neighborhoods during the August 5 storm.

On Tuesday, August 8, New Orleans City Council held a special meeting, questioning several city officials on why the organizations could not prevent or lessen the impact of neighborhood flooding.

After clarification from a fiery crossfire between City Council and the Sewerage and Water Board Director Cedric Grant and General Superintendent Joe Becker, the public learned that 14 out of the cities 121 pumps were not operational.

Eight of those 14 pumps deal directly with drainage in New Orleans.

Grant publicly took responsibility for misleading the public, formerly saying all of the pumps were operational.

In a conference held Tuesday, August 8, during the special City Council meeting, Mayor Landrieu called for the removal of Grant and Becker; Sewerage and Water Board spokesperson Lisa Martin; and Department of Public Works Director, Mark Jernigan.

Lead officials from National Weather Service of New Orleans, Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (NOLA Ready); Sewage and Water Board of New Orleans. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and the Department of Public Works were in attendance at Tuesday’s special City Council meeting.

Here are the highlights from the presentations:

Sewerage and Water Board

When asked what was needed to drain 9.3 inches of rain, the amount of rain that fell in Mid-City during Saturday’s storm, Becker says he would need six times the current capacity to keep up with that amount of water.

While 14 of the pumps were out of operation, one out of the three pumps was out of commission in the Lakeview neighborhood. The operational pumps in Lakeview moved water at 57 percent of optimal performance. Lakeview had nearly 5 inches of rain.

Council Member James Gray, frustrated at evasive answers says: “I thought we are on a witch hunt, but we have found witches.”

Becker publicly apologized for the misinformation given to the public.

“We are committed to making the repairs to the turbines,” Becker says. “We are committed to making repairs to the pumps as rapidly as we can...I am very committed to making sure the system works.”

Treme Business Representation

While not gauged by the City of New Orleans in its recent survey of rainfall, several homes and businesses in Treme underwent extensive flood damage.

Representing businesses, City Council called forth Naaman Stewart, president of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which is headquartered on 722 North Broad Street. The Headquarters took water damage on its ground level.

“I didn’t come here to get confused about statistics and data about flooding,” Stewart says. “If we flood like this in a typical Summer rain storm, what’s going to happen in a hurricane?”

Posted by Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, Inc. on Saturday, August 5, 2017

Stewart found the comments of the Sewerage and Water Board unacceptable.

“Feel sorry for the people who live in the neighborhoods. Feel sorry for the businesses that might not have flood insurance. Those are the people we need to be worried about,” Stewart says.

“We have to get these problems corrected, or there will be no City of New Orleans,” he added.

Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (NOLA Ready)

Aaron Miller, the Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, says rainfall started around 2 p.m. on Saturday morning. The administrative branch has a daily and weekly briefing on weather, and, based on the most current information at the time, NOLA Ready expected 1 to 2 inches of rain throughout the entire weekend.

The first 911 report of a car flooding occurred at 3:17 p.m. NOLA Ready sent out a flood advisory at 3:45 p.m., followed by at National Weather Service Announcement at 4:02 p.m.

During the flood, there were 54 flooding related rescues, and 112 flood related EMS calls during the duration of the storm.

City Council Woman LaToya Cantrell commented “You dropped the ball on this one,” on NOLA Ready’s actions during the storm. She criticized the organization 30-minute wait to release an advisory after the first 911 call, and lack of preparedness to block flooded and obstructed intersections.

National Weather Service

Ken Graham, chief Meteorologist for the National Weather Service New Orleans branch, says that Saturday’s storm began as “a typical rainfall.”

“By four o’clock the meteorologists saw the rainfall rates regenerating and lasting to long over the city,” Graham says.

NWS sent out a flash flood warning at 4:02 p.m. to hundreds of thousand mobile devices.

“We really try to limit those to big events like this one, where it becomes life threatening.,” he added.

By the end of the storm, the NWS’s heliport received 5.9 inches of rain, which Graham noted as an “incredible amount” over a few-hour period. Graham says that water levels varied throughout the city. For example, New Orleans Airport gauge read 0.5 inches of rain while Mid-City gauged 9.3 inches.

Graham says that the organization could use more storm gauges predict the impact of a storm quicker. In retrospect, he says the organization acted in the best way in the amount of time it had.

A similar weather phenomenon happened in Harrison County, Mississippi earlier this year. Graham noted there was a lot more green space to absorb water during the storm. A similar storm happened in New Orleans in May of 1995.