When Joseph Becker, general superintendent of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, began answering questions from the New Orleans City Council Aug. 8, it was clear the S&WB's original story about its performance during the Aug. 5 storm was taking on more water than a Lamborghini stranded in Lakeview. Just before the council's special meeting, S&WB Executive Director Cedric Grant announced he would retire by the end of the year. "Some parts of our system did not operate as they should have, which is disappointing because it contradicts information that I was given to provide to the public," Grant said. That was an understatement.
The information referenced by Grant — that all the drainage pumps were in working order during the storm — was contradicted by data that Council members tweezed out of Becker during the special meeting. Becker floated the equivocality that "all the pump stations were working at the capacity they had available to them." As it turned out, 16 of the system's 121 pumps were out of commission. A Lakeview pumping station operating at 100 percent of its "available capacity" was actually working at 57 percent of its capacity. Other stations reported similar problems.
In fairness, no urban area in America can absorb 9 inches of rainwater in three hours' time. There was bound to be flooding, but the S&WB's response was uniformly poor. For example, the head of the city's Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness said the S&WB didn't contact his office to let him know about pumping issues. Elsewhere, people stranded in the hardest-hit areas couldn't use their phones to get emergency information from the S&WB because the agency has no active official Facebook page or Twitter feed to disseminate news and emergency information efficiently.
That lack of communication — along with other snafus — prompted Mayor Mitch Landrieu to seek the termination of S&WB Communications Director Lisa Martin and Becker, the general superintendent. As an independent agency, the S&WB does not report to the mayor, though he chairs the board "ex officio." (See "Politics," p. 13.)
Then there was the issue of clogged catch basins, which fall under the city's Department of Public Works (DPW). The council had approved $3 million in the department's 2017 budget expressly for cleaning catch basins, and Council members were rightfully upset when DPW head Mark Jernigan said that an environmental review had not been conducted and the work not done. Jernigan stepped down that same day.
Could it get worse? Yes. In the middle of the night Thursday, the city reported a fire had knocked out one of only two working turbines that power the pumps (there are five turbines). If another bad rainstorm had come, or worse, if the turbine lost power, the city could have flooded again — and worse. Fortunately that didn't happen.
Landrieu also called for an independent "after-action" analysis of the city's performance during and after the storm. We hope he'll include the New Orleans Police Department in that review. Even after cars got moving again, motorists reported few cops directing traffic on still-flooded streets.
We are entering the height of hurricane season, and the Aug. 5 storm was a not-so-dry run that tested the readiness of city agencies. We should all be thankful that the freak storm wasn't an actual hurricane.