Mayor Mitch Landrieu was cautiously optimistic Friday afternoon that the city’s drainage system can handle anticipated rainfall from Hurricane Harvey, and an evacuation will not be necessary.
After weeks of work on the city’s troubled drainage pumps and their power system, 106 of the 120 pumps are working, putting it at 92 percent of operational capacity.
In addition, 23 of 29 pumps at underpasses are operating.
The Sewerage & Water Board has restored one of its broken power-generating turbines after it went down earlier this month. Landrieu said there should be enough power to run the system.
The Sewerage & Water Board will move contract workers into pump stations Monday, when heavy rain is expected to move into the area. Starting then, they will staff all pump stations 24 hours a day.
“We believe that our drainage system can handle this forecast, unless of course we get stuck in a rain band,” Landrieu said at a press conference at City Hall.
It’s possible rainfall will be heavier than expected, particularly because Harvey is moving slowly. And some parts of the city could see more rain than others.
“If this weather system strengthens and produces maximum rainfall … we will see some flooding even if our system was at full capacity,” Landrieu said.
At this point, he does not anticipate an evacuation order. “We will revisit that issue,” he said, if Harvey moves back into the Gulf of Mexico after making landfall in Texas.
“The thing that troubles me about this particular hurricane is that it is moving slowly,” Landrieu said.
City agencies are preparing for the worst. The Police Department has high-water vehicles, boats and barricades staged throughout the city. If the situation deteriorates, all officers will be called to report for duty.
The Department of Public Works has crews cleaning catch basins, 900 of which have recently been cleaned or repaired. And the Fire Department is handing out sandbags.
The worst weather is expected to begin late Sunday and continue into the middle of the week. Landrieu said residents should be prepared to shelter in place during the worst of it.
“Next week’s going to be a hard week for us. It’s going to be an uncertain week,” Landrieu said.
“I don’t have to tell everyone it’s the anniversary of Katrina. It brings back a lot of hard memories for all of us.”
Texas coast braces for one to two feet of rain
Hurricane Harvey, upgraded to a Category 4 storm Friday evening, is expected to make landfall in southeastern Texas late Friday or early Saturday. As of Friday afternoon, the storm was projected to linger over the state for several days, weakening into a tropical storm before moving east toward Louisiana.
Communities along the Texas coast expect between 15 and 25 inches of rain over five to seven days.
Some areas are projected to get as much as 35 inches, which would be more than New Orleans had in its rainiest summer on record in 2012, as Advocate reporter Jeff Adelson noted.
“Impacts on the Texas coast will be catastrophic,” said Ken Graham of the National Weather Service at Friday’s press conference.
What we can expect in New Orleans
Rain is the major concern for the New Orleans area. As of Friday afternoon, forecasts predicted between four and 10 inches of rain in the area over seven days, with the heaviest rain between Sunday and the middle of next week.
However, city officials have repeatedly said that intense rainfall would lead to street flooding even if the drainage system is operating at full capacity. Right now, it isn’t.
“Five to 10 inches is the forecast. If we get stuck in one of those rain bands … it’s not uncommon to see double that,” Graham said.
He told the public to keep an eye on the storm’s track. “Little, teeny shifts in that track could make a big difference in what we see here.”
Why some are worried about the city’s drainage system
The city’s drainage system, operated by the Sewerage & Water Board, works by collecting rainwater in underground pipes and then pumping them into canals.
At full capacity, the city’s drainage system can pump an inch of rain in the first hour and a half-inch every hour after.
Earlier this month, flooding throughout much of the city exposed serious problems with the city’s drainage infrastructure.
As residents asked how a summer rainstorm — albeit a large one — could cause such damage, officials at the Sewerage & Water Board and City Hall at first said all 24 pump stations were operating at full capacity. (There are multiple pumps at each station.)
They said the system was just overwhelmed by a storm that dumped up to nine inches in a few hours in some places.
An earlier storm, in July, also caused flooding in Mid-City.
Their story quickly unraveled. On August 7, Sewerage & Water Board Superintendent Joe Becker admitted that a number of pumps were down during the storm. What’s more, the downed pumps were in some of the worst-hit areas, as Becker and Sewerage & Water Board Director Cedric Grant admitted in a contentious City Council meeting.
Subsequent reports revealed that one station was unstaffed for hours after flooding began. The Advocate reported that about a fifth of the agency’s budgeted positions are unfilled, including a number of drainage employees and engineers.
Landrieu blamed the city’s Civil Service system for what he characterized as inefficient recruiting. Civil Service Commission Chairwoman Michelle Craig disputed that, saying the Sewerage & Water Board has failed to screen hundreds of applicants.
Under pressure from City Hall, Grant and Becker announced their resignations.
Then things got worse.
On Aug. 9, an equipment malfunction at the Sewerage & Water Board’s power plant disabled one of its electricity-generating turbines, which power most of its drainage pumps.
City officials called it a fire at first. But in response to a public records request, the Sewerage & Water Board told The Lens there had been no fire.
In an interview, Landrieu spokesman Tyronne Walker said a piece of equipment had overheated.
“It was an electrical overheating,” he said. “It was initially described as an electrical fire, and that’s what we communicated. … The word ‘fire’ probably should not have been used.”
The outage left the city with only one turbine producing electricity for the pumping system. And it wasn’t producing the type of electricity that powers most of the pumps on the east bank upriver of the Industrial Canal.
Pumps use obsolete form of electricity
Many of the city’s pumps, particularly those on the east bank and upriver of the Industrial Canal, use an obsolete type of power that operates at 25 cycles per second.
Four of the five turbines produce that type of electricity. All four were out of service after Aug. 9, at least the second time this year the agency could not produce any 25-cycle power.
Other pumps operate on modern 60-cycle power, provided by Entergy and one backup in-house turbine. The Sewerage & Water Board can convert 60-cycle power to 25-cycle power for the older pumps, but as The Advocate reported, there are limits to how much power can be converted at the same time. The Advocate reported that upgrading the system would cost as much as $1 billion.
The turbine that went down this month is back in service, but three others are still offline. The city is waiting on a report on the cause of overheating problem, as well as the pumping problems during the July and August floods.
The Sewerage & Water Board did not respond to a request for preliminary reports on the Aug. 9 incident.
Decisions on closures could be made Sunday
Officials with the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board are keeping in touch with school leaders and the city on Harvey’s potential effect on the city, said Kunjan Narechania, RSD superintendent.
Ultimately, RSD charters make their own decisions about whether to close. Parents can expect to hear directly from schools and through media outlets should there be any schedule changes.
The Orleans schools superintendent can close schools under its authority, district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said.
Landrieu said he expects decisions about school and other public building closures to be made by Sunday.
Staff writer Marta Jewson contributed to this report.
This story was updated after publication to note that Harvey had strengthened to a Category 4 storm. (Aug. 25, 2017)