During a rainstorm of almost Biblical proportions last weekend, a number of pumps failed in New Orleans. It started out as one of those Louisiana storms that settle over the Crescent City, like an unwanted and immovable houseguest. Hurricane-like flooding resulted in some neighborhoods.
Our street, Short Street, survived with random foot-deep puddles. Because we’re in a fairly low-lying neighborhood, I was surprised to have escaped relatively unscathed. Just three blocks away the streets were temporarily impassable.
But “temporarily impassable” was definitely not the situation in parts of Mid City, where 9.5 inches of rain in about three hours had kayakers cruising the streets and water up to a foot deep in some homes.
Of course a lot of these images bring back unpleasant memories for many New Orleanians, and for good reason.
It may be why Mayor Mitch Landrieu—who is, if nothing else, always acutely aware of optics—has begun a very public process of housecleaning at the besieged (and once famously corrupt) New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, the public entity responsible for running and maintaining the city’s elaborate system of storm pumps and street drainage.
As the waters began to rise on Saturday, the board’s executive director Cedric Grant, reassured the city that all 121 pumps were working properly; the flooding was the result of an insane amount of rain in a short period of time. He also said that weather events like this were likely to be more common as a result of climate change.
There were those who howled that Grant was passing the buck, and clearly he was. But initially his explanation made some sense. It was a shit-ton of rain, after all, and the weather is changing—loath as some people in high places are to admit it. Those are facts. Later, however, the water board was forced to concede that a number of pumps were not operating at full capacity, and still others not operating at all, due to “maintenance” issues.
For Landrieu, who has always fashioned himself as a reformer, someone who broke decades of entrenched civic dysfunction in a corrupt city, this is a very public black eye. He can’t blame this one on his now-jailed predecessor.
During a heated City Council forum, Grant apologized for misleading the public and said that since citizens had lost confidence in the agency he would be retiring in November, basically falling on his sword (presumably at the Mayor’s orders). Other top officials have also been ousted and Landrieu is taking steps to put a private firm in control of the water board.
All of this is well and good. Whatever infrastructure the city has in place to remove water during storms should be properly maintained and fully deployed. In recent years, with federal support the city has committed upwards of a billion dollars to street drainage. Unfortunately, the new system—still under construction in some neighborhoods—doesn’t really rethink the old one, it simply replaces it, albeit with much bigger underground tunnels for sluicing storm water off streets and over the levees. Ultimately the street drainage initiative might be looked at as a gigantic missed opportunity. Some of these unfinished projects exacerbated the flooding on Saturday, but somehow few of us were chuckling over that irony.
Completing the construction and solving the long standing administrative chaos at the water board (which pre-dates Katina), won’t address the larger problem. This is why I found the furor surrounding Grant’s comments so discouraging. His secondary lie—a slippery way of saying, Don’t blame me, blame Mother Nature—actually obscured a larger truth.
We can’t pump our way out of this predicament.
Everyone living in a coastal community, virtually anywhere in the world, faces this dilemma. We will get other storms like this in New Orleans. And we’ll also get hurricanes, which will likely dump even more rain. That part of the story poor Cedric Grant got terribly right. And even if the Mayor could somehow wave his magic wand and instantly produce a competent water board, there aren’t enough pumps, for the deluges that lie ahead. Adding to the cascading crisis, last night, four days after the flood, one of the water board’s huge power generators caught fire and another crucial turbine was knocked out of service.
More rain is expected today.
Featured image via YouTube.