Ever since the flash-flooding on Aug. 5 when a summer rain drenched homes and businesses in New Orleans, I’ve received phone calls every day from distressed callers. “Should I sell my properties and move away?” they asked. I assured them that the localized draining crisis is much different from the regionwide levee failure crisis of 12 years ago after Hurricane Katrina.
Drainage issues in New Orleans — due to climate and geography — have been a major concern since the city’s founding in 1718. The natural lowlands north and east of the original settlement were referred to as “back swamps” in the earliest maps, and then “cypress swamps” on maps made after 1816. For about two centuries, the urban portion of the city was largely confined to the sliver along the Mississippi River, where a natural levee (firm soil deposits left from the river’s annual floods) provided the highest elevations.
But with an expanding footprint, the need to keep New Orleans drained, adequately supplied with water for drinking and fire protection, and provided with a sanitary sewerage system became paramount. In 1896, the New Orleans Drainage Commission was created and three years later, the Louisiana Legislature authorized the Sewerage and Water Board. These merged shortly after, and this new combined organization retained the title of S&WB. However, quite unlike when the hurricane levees breached in 52 places during Hurricane Katrina, the current pumps station crisis is far less complex.
Analyzing the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers’ levees took years and more than a dozen studies to figure out what went wrong and why. Analyzing the failure of the S&WB’s pumping and drainage should take weeks, months at most. The mayor has released a Request for Proposals for a firm to conduct a “root cause analysis” to figure out what happened at the S&WB, which seemed to go from a “well-oiled machine” to what it is today. In addition, Levees.org has communicated its willingness to the mayor’s office to assist with the root cause analysis. Perhaps most importantly, the residents of New Orleans can rest assured that neither the S&WB nor the mayoral administration has bottomless coffers of money to spend on a disinformation campaign, like the corps did after Katrina.
Initially after Katrina, the corps blamed everyone and everything for the levee breaches except itself. Levees.org repeatedly called out the corps for this disingenuous blame-game. Whoever and whatever is the cause of the recent episodes of localized flash-flooding will be found out. Meanwhile, this year, Levees.org is prepared, as we have done since Aug. 5, to call out unreasonable, questionable and wrong information when we see it.