The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t usually involve itself in drainage projects meant to protect urban areas from flooding caused by rainfall.
But the Corps has made an exception for New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish for one reason, according to agency spokesman Ricky Boyett: the devastating floods that occurred in the New Orleans area between the night of May 8, 1995, and the morning of May 10, 1995.
Part of those floods’ legacy was to catalyze creation of the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, usually referred to as “SELA,” in 1996.
In the 20 years since the flood, $706 million has been spent on upgrading canals, culverts and pumps in New Orleans and Jefferson.
Another $803 million worth of projects are ongoing in New Orleans and Jefferson to bolster a system designed to handle 9 inches of rainwater in a 24-hour period.
However, there’s no denying that the massive effort has taken its toll on residents’ quality of life. Crews working on SELA’s various components have jammed traffic on many major thoroughfares, especially in Uptown New Orleans. They’ve disrupted streetcar and bus routes, and in some cases, homeowners have been prevented from parking by their homes.
“SELA has required a lot of sacrifice on our residents’ behalf,” Boyett said Friday. “It’s required an intense amount of cooperation.”
Yet, as SELA’s estimated 2018 completion date draws nearer, Boyett hopes locals haven’t run out of patience.
After all, the area sure could have used the system 20 years ago.
Over the course of about 40 hours beginning on the evening of May 8, 1995, relentless rain flooded more than 44,000 homes in southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi, according to the National Weather Service.
Rainfall totals of between 10 and 20 inches were common in the affected area, though some places saw even more. The rain inundated thousands of businesses and public facilities, as well as countless roadways. Estimated damage costs ran above $3 billion.
Officials attributed seven deaths to the rain. Among them was an infant found floating toward a drainage pump.
None of it compared to the widespread devastation inflicted by Hurricane Katrina 10 years later. But seasoned meteorologists can’t recall a weather event that managed to produce such catastrophic flooding in New Orleans without being a named storm.
Speaking on a video produced by his office, Slidell-based National Weather Service meteorologist Robert Ricks recalled, “Once it started, it was just stuck there. It was amazing to see the persistence of the rain and the heaviness of the rain for so long.”
Weather Service meteorologist Frank Rivette, who with Ricks and others authored an often-cited technical memorandum on the May 1995 floods, said, “Outside of a tropical event, that was the most rainfall in a short period of time I’ve seen in my career here.”
Even locals who don’t monitor the weather for a living share similar memories.
The home of Harahan couple Milton and Sandra LeBlanc flooded when a canal at the edge of their backyard overflowed in the middle of the night.
“My most vivid memory is climbing out the side window of the house at 2:30 in the morning into water, then walking down Generes Drive to get to Hickory (Avenue), and water was up to my chest,” Milton LeBlanc said Friday.
It was during those arduous moments that Sandra LeBlanc learned red ants could swim.
“The red ants were in the water,” she said. “I didn’t know ants could be alive in water. I was covered on my legs with red ant bites.”
The LeBlancs, along with many of their neighbors, lost furniture, family heirlooms and carpet to the flooding.
Like many others, Jefferson Parish Councilman Paul Johnston remembers the day vividly. A Harahan city councilman at the time, Johnston said, “That day we had 16 to 20 inches of rain in a six-hour time frame. Harahan itself ... about 50, 60 percent of the city had water. A lot of houses were flooded in this city, and that never happened before in this area.”
Boyett, the Corps spokesman, said the chances of similar flooding occurring again in the New Orleans area because of rainfall alone have dropped considerably because of SELA, which also calls for improvements in St. Tammany Parish.
Those odds will be even lower once SELA is completely finished, he said.
“Hopefully, people (whose daily routines have been messed up by SELA) will bear with us and will understand that in the end, we believe the benefits will far outweigh the sacrifices that we’re having to make now,” Boyett said. “In the long run ... the entire (area) will benefit from this project.”