NEW ORLEANS (CN) — The governor declared a state of emergency in New Orleans Thursday as the city’s 119-year-old drainage system teetered on the edge of failure, posing risks of more flooding if rain forecasts prove true this weekend.
Less than a week after a flash flood swamped cars and first floors in parts of Mid-City, Lakeview, Gentilly and Treme, and one day after a fire in a power plant crippled the city’s already limping drainage system, Governor John Bel Edwards declared the emergency.
“Obviously this is a serious situation,” Edwards said at a Thursday morning news conference at City Hall, “but it’s not something to be panicked about.”
The declaration is retroactive, reaching back to last Saturday, Aug. 5, when neighborhoods sank beneath the water as rain came down in sheets. It will continue through Sept. 2, when heavy rainfall is expected to ease up.
The city’s municipal pumping system, when it works, moves water out of the city, but the severely restricted capacity of the drainage system this week has left many afraid that even an ordinary summer afternoon downpour could swamp the streets again.
The weather forecast for the next several days predicts heavy rains.
After last weekend’s flooding, city officials insisted the pumps had been working at 100 percent capacity and that the flooding was simply the result of climate change.
Only under scrutiny did the truth come out: that pumping stations in two of the hardest-hit areas were limited to one-half to two-thirds capacity during the storm.
By the city’s calculations, released Sunday, 8 to 10 inches of rain fell in some areas of the city in as few as four hours.
“Many neighborhoods of the city saw rainfall amounts equaling a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year, a so-called 100-year event. Others saw rainfall amounts equaling a 10 percent chance of occurring in any year, a so-called 10-year event. The rate of rainfall in many neighborhoods of the city was one of the highest recorded in recent history,” the city said in a statement Sunday.
As the week unfolded, so did revelations that 16 of the city’s pumps were not working last Saturday when the heavy rains came down.
Sewerage and Water Board director Cedric Grant, who announced this week he is retiring this year, initially blamed global warming for the flooding, saying it was all part of the “climate change era.” He added that upgrading the city’s drainage system would cost billions of dollars and the city does not have the money.
During an investigative meeting on the weekend flooding, City Council President Jason Williams called Grant’s statements “completely offensive.”
“This past weekend we suffered damage to property, frustration, disruption of lives, and I don’t believe there was sufficient information disseminated from the administration,” Williams said. “I have said this publicly already and I’ll say it again: The suggestion – regardless of the amount of water that fell, regardless of the capacity of the pumps – a statement saying that dealing with flooded-out first floors, dealing with waking up to a lost car is just climate change and the new normal is completely offensive.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu called Grant’s climate change comments “tone deaf” during a hearing Monday but said that the city was bound to flood with or without all the pumps up and working.
“I can say with a lot of confidence that we have one of the best pumping systems in the world,” Landrieu said, “But we will find out if there was a problem. Having said that, the city was going to flood anyway from this particular event.”
Schools and some public offices were to remain closed Friday due to fear of floods.
Freddie Zeigler, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Slidell, near New Orleans, told the Times Picayune on Thursday that “storms are developing all over the place with no real rhyme or reason to it.”
Zeigler said rain would probably continue into the weekend, with a 60 percent chance Friday and Saturday. A 60 percent chance of rain means that rain is expected in 60 percent of the area.
Zeigler told the Times Picayune the afternoon storms that are usual this time of year in New Orleans have been starting earlier in the morning and lasting longer through the day. He said the National Weather Service is “taking into account” New Orleans’ pumping problems as it considers how and when to issue flood warnings and flood watches. He said weather forecasters do not know how much rain the New Orleans pump system can endure.
“We know different areas have different issues in handling the rain,” Zeigler said. “We’ve got to put that in the back of our mind in how we issue watches and warnings.”
He said the 5 to 9 inches of rain that flooded homes last weekend was catastrophic, and that if it were to happen again, “we would not be able to handle that level of capacity” with the power the system has now.