PHOTO BY KEVIN ALLMAN
A parked Mercedes-Benz floods out in Mid-City Aug. 5.
As streets across New Orleans began to flood after an afternoon deluge Aug. 5, the Sewerage & Water Board (S&WB) assured residents that "all pumps were operational."
But at a meeting called by the New Orleans City Council Aug. 8, the S&WB clarified "pump stations were working at the capacity available to them," making the distinction between a drainage system that's working completely and one that is working with what it has, with several pumps offline and waiting for maintenance.
Moments before the meeting began, S&WB director Cedric Grant sent a press release announcing his retirement from the agency and apologizing for the disinformation. "The information I have learned over the last 24 hours indicate that 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," he said. "Our staff was not forthright, which is unacceptable."
At a press conference held as the City Council meeting was still in progress, a frustrated Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced he's also calling for the resignation of S&WB's Joseph Becker and communications director Lisa Martin, as well as Department of Public Works Director Mark Jernigan, who has been under scrutiny twice over the last week in the City Council chambers for the poor conditions of catch basins — and what the agency has done with $3 million set aside for their repairs.
Landrieu said "it was inaccurate" to suggest the city's drainage system was operating at its maximum abilities. He said the S&WB's "obfuscation" with questions from the City Council was "an insult to the public."
More than 9 inches of water fell on New Orleans Aug. 5, stranding drivers on major thoroughfares and flooding cars, homes and businesses. It took more than 12 hours to drain standing floodwaters in some areas. Officials and residents largely agree that a significant amount of rain in a short period of time wouldn't leave neighborhoods wholly unscathed, but the degree of flooding — with little warning and lack of information — had residents demanding accountability from City Hall.
In a public statement sent by the city Aug. 5, it reported that "all pumping stations are operational." In two public statements on Aug. 6, the city reported that the S&WB "has reported that all 24 of its pumping stations were on and working."
In an interview Aug. 5, Grant reiterated that "all pumps are operational," and pumps were overwhelmed and couldn't keep up with the pace of the rain.
“There is no drainage system in the world that can handle that immediately,” Grant said. “We have these kinds of rains every month and it’s not just us — it’s the rest of the country that’s experiencing the same weather patterns. ... We have a fairly significant system, one of the most significant in the world, but we're in a situation now where we receive more rain than anybody could have imagined on a recurring basis. This system is doing everything it can to address that."
In the days following the flood, city officials began to question whether the S&WB was being purposefully unclear or unintentionally spreading misinformation.
It later was revealed that 14 of the city's 121 pumps at the city's 24 stations were not operational, including eight broken pumps and pumps down for scheduled maintenance. Six smaller "constant duty" pumps that regularly pump out groundwater also were down.
According to S&WB General Superintendent Joseph Becker, pump stations were "at capacity" — but only to the capacity available to them. In Lakeview, nine of 13 pumps were working. At City Park, two of three pumps were working. Three other pumps in Algiers and New Orleans East also were out, but S&WB officials said they likely wouldn't have made an impact.
District E City Councilmember James Gray tried to pin down a clear answer from Becker over whether pumps were working, as officials said. "I may not ask you the right question, but you know there's a question that would give more significant answers," Gray said. "So the answer is, you lost more than a third of your capacity [at one station]?"
"Yes, sir," Becker said.
"I thought we were on a witch hunt," Gray later said. "We found witches."
Still, Becker insisted the amount of rain that fell over only a few hours would've overwhelmed even a fully operational system, unless the city had a "massive expansion" of its drainage system, requiring up to 500 pumps rather than its current 121.
"Climate change is real," said City Council President Jason Williams, who presided over the meeting. "But before we spend an extra penny, we need to make sure every dime is used adequately."
As the meeting moved to public comment, Williams said, "We did not get straight answers today."
"We've been told lies, and that is the truth," said District B City Councilmember LaToya Cantell. She later asked Becker, "Do you honestly think you can restore public confidence in Sewerage & Water Board?"
"I absolutely do," Becker said.
Grant — whose resignation letter was distributed by Tyronne Walker, Landrieu's communications director — will leave office at the end of hurricane season.
"While we have made a huge amount of progress upgrading our physical infrastructure and transforming our internal systems, much more needs to be done to bring it to the 21st century," Grant said in his statement. "It was clear then and is clear now that there is a lack of confidence from the public in the system’s abilities. We cannot have that lack of confidence, which is why we are not only fixing the system every day, we are working overhaul the internal workings of the organization."