New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell at a press conference ahead of Hurricane Sally on Sept. 14, 2020. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell on Monday said that while she was encouraged by updated projections moving Hurricane Sally’s path to the east, New Orleans residents should still be prepared for heavy winds and rain, and stressed that the ultimate effect on the city wasn’t clear. 

“It can easily move back. Forecasts are not certain where the landfall will be,” Cantrell said. “But it is definitely in the path of the City of New Orleans. There is still risk associated in terms of excess rainfall and strong winds locally. We’re seeing winds will occur later this afternoon through Tuesday and excessive rainfall through Wednesday.”

The National Hurricane Center upgraded the storm to a hurricane on Monday. It is expected to make landfall on Tuesday, possibly as a Category 2 storm.  

She said that the city is expecting 10 to 15 inches of rain, “which could definitely accelerate.”

Ramsey Green, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer of infrastructure, said that the impacts would likely be similar to what the city experienced in July 2019 just before Hurricane Barry, when a thunderstorm with heavy rain caused damaging flooding throughout New Orleans. 

“We are looking at a very big rain event,” Green said. “I would really think about, if you saw a tremendous amount of flooding in July of 2019, we may see something to that effect or less. Less or more. We just don’t know, necessarily.”

New Orleans is preparing for a hurricane for the second time in less than a month. New Orleans was spared the worst of the damage from Hurricane Laura, which decimated parts of Southwest Louisiana including Lake Charles. New Orleans is currently home to 12,000 evacuees from Hurricane Laura in 37 different hotels, according to Collin Arnold, the director of the city;’s office of homeland security and emergency preparedness.

Over the weekend, projections from the National Hurricane Center showed Hurricane Sally making a head on collision with the city. But on Sunday night and Monday morning, new projections moved the center of the track to the east, potentially making it more of a threat to coastal Mississippi and Alabama, though much of the metro New Orleans area remained within the forecast cone as of the 10 a.m. update.

“Overnight, the track of the storm shifted East,” Cantrell said. “This seems to be better news for us. However we’re continuing to monitor its track. It is moving slowly.”

Cantrell and other officials stressed that there we’re a lot of unknowns, but that the main factor to watch would be the amount of rainfall, and specifically how fast that rain pours down.

“It’s all about the rainfall rate,” Arnold said. “If we have 18 inches of rain over 3 days, we can probably handle that. But if we get 9 inches of rain over two hours, we’re going to have issues.”

In the past, officials have said that the city’s water pump system, operated by the Sewerage and Water Board, can handle up to one inch of rain an hour. Cantrell repeated that sentiment on Monday, but stressed that there are conditions that can affect that drainage rate. 

“Every event is different,” she said. “An inch of rain an hour we can kind of manage that. Anything above that, we’re kind of above our ability to handle that.”

Cantrell said that while her administration had been working to make improvements and repairs to the city’s century old flood management system, it was still “a work in progress” and described it as “a fragile system that’s over 100 years old that hadn’t been adequately maintained for decades.”

However, she reported that all 99 of the city’s pumps were in operation, something she said hadn’t happened in years. She said that water levels in the city’s drainage canals had been lowered to prepare them to take on more water during the hurricane. And she said that the state of the system was “better than we’ve seen it in a long time.”

Sewerage and Water Board Press Secretary Courtney Barnes confirmed that “all 99 drainage pumps are now available for use.” However, she said that one “underpass pump” and another two “constant-duty pumps” are out of service.

“Two constant-duty pumps are out of service, but these are smaller units used to regulate groundwater in canals and are not large enough to be critical during a flood fight,” she said in a statement.

As for maintaining power to those pumps, Barnes said that “turbines 1, 3, 4 and 6 are available for service, as well as all 5 Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD) generators and all frequency changers.”

In 2019, one of the Sewerage and Water Board turbines, Turbine 5, exploded, leaving the pump system without a key backup power source. Part of the response to increase reliability in the absence of that turbine was the Carrollton Frequency Changer power project.

“Regarding the Carrollton Frequency Changer power project, the timeline for completion was delayed due to Hurricanes Laura and Marco,” Barnes wrote. “We expect to complete the project next week, pending weather.”

Barnes said that street flooding was possible, and that the public should remain vigilant. Cantrell noted that beyond the pump system, the city’s green infrastructure projects, which seek to drain and hold water naturally through the ground, will also play a role in keeping the city safe.

Cantrell asked residents to sign up for city updates by texting “Sally” to 88777. She asked people to clean catch basins. Arnold warned that any hurricane can bring power outages, and that residents should charge their devices, turn down the temperature in their refrigerator and have flashlights available. He also urged people with special needs, such as oxygen, insulin or dialysis, to sign up for the city’s special needs registry.

“Especially your elderly neighbors, check on them and make sure they have everything they need for the next few days,” NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said on Monday. 

The Lens asked Cantrell what the city’s plan was for housing the unsheltered homeless population, which has seen an uptick in recent weeks, according to homeless service providers, following a steep decline in the spring due to a temporary hotel shelter program implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic. In response, Cantrell said that there were enough shelter beds for anyone who needed one.

Historically, the demand for shelter beds has outpaced their availability in New Orleans. While preparing for Hurricane Barry in 2019, the city has had to expand capacities at those shelters to get people off the streets. Shelters have even less capacity than usual right now due to the coronavirus pandemic and the need for social distancing.

At the same time, the city brought its unsheltered homeless population to the lowest it’s been in over a decade this summer due to a program that temporarily housed homeless people in hotels. However, after that program stopped accepting new people in June, the unsheltered homeless population has taken a precipitous climb. 

Nonetheless, Cantrell said that even in the city’s preparations for Hurricane Laura, it was determined that the city had enough beds for everyone who wanted one.

“We believe that we have capacity,” Cantrell said. “And if that changes, we will change as well to meet that need.”

Marta Jewson contributed to this report.

This story has been updated with  information from the Sewerage and Water Board.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...