Text messages between Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his chief of staff show the mayor’s top advisers urged him to return to New Orleans the day after the Aug. 5 flood instead of waiting until after the conclusion of a national security leadership conference at the Aspen Institute in Colorado.
Weeks into the crisis, which has cast a long shadow over his administration, Landrieu said publicly that he regretted not coming home immediately — though he has also said his presence in New Orleans likely would have made no difference.
The text messages, along with cellphone logs from the period in question, were obtained by WWL-TV through a public records request. They shed new light on what Landrieu knew about the flooding and when.
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Against the advice of his top staff, Landrieu stayed in Aspen on Sunday, Aug. 6, the day after the flood, to speak at the home of financial analyst Leah Zell on a panel titled “The Home Front: A Group Discussion About Domestic Politics.”
The day before, the rain had begun falling at 1 p.m., and low-lying areas of the city started filling up with water when pumps maintained by the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board had difficulty keeping up.
By 4 p.m., the rain was still coming down and 911 calls about the flooding were pouring in to the city’s emergency agencies.
Screen shots of text messages from Landrieu’s two cellphones show the mayor first asked his chief of staff, Brooke Smith, about the flooding at 5:28 p.m. Central time.
“Is all ok?” Landrieu texted to Smith.
She replied, “Lots of rain and street flooding at the moment. Am on call with (Emergency Operations Center) and comm(unication)s. Will update shortly.”
Ten minutes later, Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts texted Landrieu: “Not sure how bad water situation is by you guys but all of our fire departments have boats. If you guys need assistance just let us know.”
Landrieu forwarded that text to New Orleans Homeland Security Director Aaron Miller, adding: “From jeff parish. What’s up.”
Miller replied, “Received. A rain band has stalled out. Causing excessive street flooding no reports of emergency rescues needed.”
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In fact, the first calls to 911 had come in a couple of hours earlier, around 3:17 p.m. In some of those calls, residents simply reported the flooding and questioned whether the drainage pumps were working. But in others, callers were seeking help getting out of cars stuck in the flash flood.
Images of residents slogging through flood water and homes and businesses being inundated dominated local newscasts in New Orleans at 6 p.m.
An hour later, Gov. John Bel Edwards texted Landrieu, “Mayor: I’m in Aspen at (Democratic Governors Association) meeting. You need any help with rain/flooding in Nola”.
Landrieu responded: “We are in touch with your team and will make requests as needed. We are good at the moment. I am in Aspen as well at Aspen Institute. I have been in touch with my team. But I think we are ok.”
An hour later, at 8:16 p.m., Landrieu forwarded the governor's question to his chief of staff.
“From gov. Is all ok. Are we ok... Or do we need help,” he asked.
Smith responded, “Over 40 reported street flooding incidents. All underpasses flooded. Aaron, (Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Cedric Grant) will do 5/6 newscasts 4-6 inches of rain in parts of the city in an hour. Pumps are working but can’t keep up.”
She texted again: “No deaths or significant injuries.”
But by late Saturday night, Landrieu’s top advisers were urging him to get on a plane to New Orleans the next morning.
In one text, Smith told her boss: “We think you should take the 8:15 a.m. flight via Denver back to MSY tomorrow. Planning an afternoon press avail.”
What happened next is unclear. The cellphone logs provided by City Hall are incomplete.
“I don't know if there was any other communication between them. I know there was a lot of communication between that time between our chief of staff and Mr. Grant and the rest of our team on the capacity of our system and what we were seeing,” said Tyronne Walker, Landrieu’s press secretary.
Landrieu was scheduled to speak at the Zell mansion the following night.
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Just before midnight, Smith texted Landrieu, “For now we will work on getting you back as early as possible on Monday if you are in agreement. If things worsen we’ll regroup. Thanks.”
Walker noted the mayor has already said he wished he had returned sooner.
“He regrets not coming back immediately,” Walker said. “That's out of his own mouth. We don't have to add or subtract from that.”
The next morning, at 9:38 a.m., the mayor texted his chief of staff, "How r we doing." She replied, "We are doing well."
But a few hours later, Smith once again recommended Landrieu take an earlier flight, and this time he did so.
Travel records show he was originally scheduled to leave Aspen on Monday afternoon, but Landrieu ended up changing his flight, leaving in the morning and arriving back in New Orleans at 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 7.
The text messages also show Landrieu and Edwards weren't the only key officials who were out of town when the storm hit. Public Works Director Mark Jernigan, who would resign days later at Landrieu’s behest, was on vacation in Dauphin Island, Alabama. Jernigan texted Grant that he planned to return Sunday night.
On Monday, Grant texted Jernigan again asking where he was, saying, “I got an inquiry from the second floor.” The second floor is the location of the mayor's office at City Hall.
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Almost as revealing as what was contained in the text exchanges is what wasn’t. There was no direct communication between Landrieu and Grant, who held a dual position as executive director of the Sewerage & Water Board, responsible for city drainage, and Landrieu’s deputy mayor over capital projects.
Walker said city staffers all take on different roles in a given incident, and one point person will handle communication with the mayor. In the case of the Aug. 5 flood, that point person was not Grant, who soon was gone from both his jobs.