Soggy New Orleans looks warily at more rain, possible floods

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — With debris from last weekend’s flash flood still piled up on sidewalks and their city under a state of emergency, New Orleans residents looked ahead warily Friday to the prospect of more rain to tax the city’s malfunctioning pump system.

Tammy Butler went through Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was reliving the stress this week. Butler says she can’t afford to rebuild her home and life a second time.

“I am angry, and I am sick of it,” Butler said. “If people keep getting floods, I’m just going to have to leave the city.”

The city scrambled to repair fire-damaged equipment at a power plant and shore up its drainage system less than a week after a flash flood from torrential rain overwhelmed the city’s pumping system and inundated many neighborhoods.

A control panel on one of two working turbines had been fixed by Friday morning, but the system remains well below full power, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. The turbine powers some of the city’s pumps.

“We remain at risk until additional turbines are back up,” Landrieu said, adding that he hopes that will happen by the end of the month. Still, he said, “Panic is not where we need to be right now.”

He said the latest to go offline will be powered up over 24 hours. Meanwhile, Landrieu said, 26 generators have been ordered and will remain through hurricane season.

He also said a location would be set up Friday for residents to get sandbags should they want to take the extra precaution of sandbagging their homes.

Schools closed for the week, and the mayor urged residents to park their cars on high ground.

Gov. John Bel Edwards described his emergency declaration Thursday as a precautionary measure.

The city’s infrastructure had been crumbling for years before the devastation unleashed in 2005 by levee breaches in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. The federal government earmarked billions of dollars for repairs and upgrades after the hurricane, but the problems have persisted.

Streets are pockmarked with potholes and sinkholes. The city’s water system has been plagued by leaks from broken pipes and power outages leading to boil water advisories.

New Orleans’ municipal pumping system is supposed to move water out of the low-lying city. Having the system crippled in August, the middle of hurricane season, could not come at a worse time for New Orleans.

But officials feared that even a common thunderstorm would test the system’s reduced capacity.

“With great prayer and a lot of hard work, hopefully we’ll be OK,” the mayor said.

Earlier this week, city officials and spokespeople had said repeatedly that all 24 pumping stations were working at full capacity.

But the system failed to keep up with a storm that dropped 9.4 inches of rain in three hours. While that was considerably more than the system is designed for, even when everything is working, it turned out the system was malfunctioning.

City Council members were then told that pumping stations in two of the hardest-hit areas went down to half to two-thirds capacity Saturday, news outlets reported.

“It is unacceptable that the public was not only uninformed, but misinformed as to our drainage system functionality during the flood,” Council Member LaToya Cantrell said in a statement.

Cedric Grant, one of the mayor’s top deputies and head of the Sewerage & Water Board, told the City Council on Tuesday that he would retire at the end of hurricane season, which lasts through November.

Public Works Director Mark Jernigan submitted his resignation shortly after the council meeting, when he was asked whether his agency had done enough to clean the catch basins that feed the drainage system.

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