As buckets of water fell on New Orleans on Saturday afternoon, dumping several inches of rain onto parts of the city, many residents began sounding a familiar cry — that something had to be wrong with the city's massive system of pumps and canals.
Others pointed to clogged culverts and catch basins as they questioned whether the entire drainage system was working as intended.
Storms dumped unexpected heavy rain on New Orleans Saturday, causing severe flooding in part…
It was the second time in 15 days that a major storm had caused flood water to inundate some city streets. The July 22 storm saw minimal damage, however; Saturday's was much worse — and for some residents, much more frightening.
Even so, New Orleans officials on Sunday again insisted that all of the city's pumping stations worked as designed Saturday afternoon.
Meteorologists, the Sewerage & Water Board and city officials reported estimates of between 1 and nearly 10 inches of rainfall over a few hours in many places.
City officials said some neighborhoods saw rainfall amounts equaling a so-called 100-year event, or one with only a 1 percent chance of occurring in any year.
The Sewerage & Water Board system is able to handle 1 inch of rain in the first hour and half an inch of rain each hour after that, officials said.
Heavy rain and flooding also hit parts of Jefferson Parish. Metairie, Old Jefferson, Elmwood, Harahan and River Ridge were among the worst-hit areas in the parish, although officials there said New Orleans had it far worse.
Citing statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Steve Caparotta, a meteorologist in Baton Rouge, said the deluge overall was likely a 50-to-100-year event — a storm with a 1 to 2 percent chance of happening in a given year.
Theoretically, at least, the numbers would seem to suggest the chances of another such storm happening soon are low, though statisticians note that the odds of such a storm occurring in any given year don't change simply because a similar one happened recently.
That, however, did little to assuage the worries of affected residents, many of whom called the event "traumatic" even in a city known for some pretty historic floods. Some referred to the event as a "mini-Katrina."
On Sunday, city officials could not promise residents that the event won't be repeated. Rather, Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni said, flash flooding is a fact of life in a city known for its bowl-like topography.
"Anytime you have multiple inches of rain in a short period of time, you're going to have street flooding in some areas," he said at a news conference. "Part of living here is living with that threat."
Questioning whether the city's pumping stations and canals were working as planned, members of the New Orleans City Council said Sunday they w…
Mayor Mitch Landrieu was not at the news conference, which took place in front of City Hall Sunday morning. Berni was accompanied by Cedric Grant, executive director of the Sewerage & Water Board, and Aaron Miller, the city's homeland security and emergency preparedness director.
Berni told The Advocate that the mayor left town on Friday for Aspen, Colorado, where he was attending a conference on security. He said Landrieu would be back in town Monday morning.
Berni said he understood that residents were "frustrated" with the flooding, but he emphasized that "all 24 Sewerage & Water Board pumping stations were operational and active throughout the event yesterday."
He said some residents were under the mistaken impression that the pumps at the lakefront on the Orleans Avenue, London Avenue and 17th Street outfall canals should have been in use Saturday. That equipment is designed to be used only in hurricanes, he said, when storm surge can push water from Lake Pontchartrain into the canals as it did to devastating effect in Hurricane Katrina.
In that scenario, gates at the mouths of the canals are closed and the water is pumped out. Those pumps "are not intended to be used in rainfall events like the one we had Saturday," Berni said.
Nonetheless, he said the administration will conduct an "after-action report" — a full written review — "just to make sure that everything was done as perfectly as possible in these events."
Berni said an investigation would be done on whether the pumps took longer than they should have to clear standing water after the rain had stopped. He noted, however, that water often continues to pool in lower-lying areas as it sluices away from higher elevations, which can lead those watching water levels in the lower levels to believe the pumps aren't doing their job.
"We have no information that suggests that the pumps weren't working as designed," he said, adding: "We're going back over to make sure there weren't any minor issues."
In response to questions about clogged catch basins and culverts, Grant pointed to a Department of Public Works report that said $6 million is budgeted for catch basin replacements and repairs, clean-outs and drainage point repairs in 2017.
So far this year, the agency has cleaned in front of 3,990 drainage catch basins, unclogged an additional 3,272 catch basins, flushed more than 61 miles of drain lines and replaced 75 broken catch basins and covers, Grant said.
He added that residents can always pitch in and do more. "We certainly ask people to take individual responsibility to clean them," he said.
As of July, he said, there were more than 3,000 open service requests, 2,478 of which were for clogged catch basins.
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In Saturday's rains, frustrated residents pointed to trash, tree branches and mud that blocked culverts in areas pounded by flooding.
Others noted that some of the lowest-lying areas also happened to get the most rain. Mid-City, for instance, often referred to as the bottom of the bowl in the city's topography, got more than 7 inches of rain in just three hours.
That's a lot, meteorologists agree.
Chris Franklin, a meteorologist with WWL-TV, said that anything over 2 inches is considered a "heavy" rain event, but what compounded Saturday's storm was the speed with which such a volume of rain fell.
The rain "just sat there for two to three hours," Franklin said. "These are not common occurrences. You can go dozens of years without this kind of event happening — those types of rain events just sitting there."
Grant also pointed to climate change as a factor behind Saturday's storm. Previous reports have suggested a link between a warmer climate and the heavy rain responsible for historic August 2016 flooding near Baton Rouge.
Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, together with the World Weather Attribution project, said that climate change has increased the odds of such a weather event by up to 40 percent in the last century, Time magazine reported in January.
Franklin, however, warned against assuming such an overarching cause for Saturday's rainfall. "There’s so many factors go into these types of events," he said. "And what it boils down to is the rarity of such events. These are not common occurrences."
The total damage caused isn't clear. Berni said fire and police officials were conducting a "windshield survey" on Sunday, assessing damage by driving around town and observing it.
Many first responders reported being busy in New Orleans on Saturday. Police, firefighters and paramedics responded to a combined 200 calls for service related to the storm, according to EMS spokeswoman Liz Belcher.
Medics helped with everything from cut feet to a woman in labor to four people injured in a partial roof collapse. All of the people injured in that incident were in stable condition at University Medical Center, Belcher said.
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The Landrieu administration said Sunday it had no plans to seek a federal emergency declaration, but Berni said that could change depending on how much damage is cataloged.
Sanitation crews will pick up debris, such as sodden carpet and drywall, if residents leave it at the curb, he said.
City officials said that dozens if not hundreds of stranded vehicles were making some intersections in New Orleans impassable Sunday, and they warned that some vehicles might be “courtesy towed” to the city's impound lot if residents did not move them.
Some top city officials expressed dissatisfaction with the administration's response.
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Several members of New Orleans City Council called a news conference Sunday afternoon to question why such massive flooding keeps happening in a city that is supposed to have sophisticated pump systems. Members said they will demand answers during a special council meeting Tuesday.
In a separate statement, state Sen. J.P. Morrell also called for answers — especially as the city moves into the height of hurricane season. He said he and other legislators will hold a town hall meeting on an unspecified date to brief the public on hurricane preparedness and the status of local flood control structures.
"Yesterday was a harrowing experience for many, and Katrina was on our minds as the waters lapped at our steps," Morrell said Sunday. "It is necessary, and appropriate, that the public be reassured that government is prepared as we continue through this hurricane season."
Editor's note: This story was changed Aug. 7 to clarify the mayor's whereabouts.
Staff writer Matt Sledge contributed to this report.