Building Drainage Systems for a Changing Climate

New Orleans Pumping Station

New Orleans   On August 5th only weeks ago, New Orleans was caught in a downpour of between 9 and 10 inches in some parts of the city that overwhelmed the sewer and drainage system. The city has been in crisis since that time, as citizens come to grip with what they thought were the strengths of the system versus its real abilities and classic fail. The outgoing mayor’s reputation and legacy, on the rise for his handling of the Civil War monuments, has now drowned since the Sewerage & Water Board was on his watch and under this thumb. The level of contradiction and incompetence revealed in the aftermath of the flooding has left many in the city on edge during hurricane season with the anniversary of the August 29th Katrina hurricane in 2005 only days away.

Remarkably, what was once vaunted as one of the most effective drainage systems in the world, now is a poster child for urban myth. I’m especially sensitive to the mythology here, because I had fallen for it hook, line and sinker as well. After the May floods in the 1980s, I had sucked in a line that the city could handle 3 inches per hour. After the August floods, I had repeated the fiction, and had to retract my line, when the local papers kept reporting that, yes, the system was supposed to be world-class, but that meant it could handle 1 inch the first hour of rain, and clear ½ inch every hour after that. A 10 inch rainfall in their version of the events was a “sky falling” catastrophe that even the best systems could not handle without flooding, especially given the epic level of the rain.

Now with Hurricane Harvey knocking hard at the I-10 Louisiana Welcome Centers across the Sabine River, we read that the Mayor’s office and the local Sewerage & Water Board are having trouble verifying any technical assessment that would have rated the system’s water carrying and clearing capacity even at the level of 1 inch per hour and so forth. This has all of the alarming aspects of an urban myth repeated so often that no once bothered to check the sources until they were finding their life jackets and canoe paddles with the water rising at the front door.

Meanwhile I’m due in Houston this week. Harvey is expected to dump 3 feet of water on Texas. The Houston drainage system is legendary for its limited handling capacity and frequent flooding from homes to interstates on the least heavy rainfall. My friend and comrade sent me a dawn text that they had already had 21 inches hit the city by Sunday morning. He was happy to report the water had covered up his street, but was not up to the porch steps yet. Before you applaud the progress in Houston, the nation’s 4th largest city, you probably need to know my friends live in the Houston Heights, near the apex of the rise. Their story is a high ground story, not one from the lowlands.

But, it’s fair to say that no city, even Houston and New Orleans in the swampy tropics of America, can handle a foot or more of water without some flooding at this point. My question is what are we learning? With climate change we are going to have more of this more often, not less. Are we talking about infrastructure investment and capital programs that will give drainage systems the capacity to handle even a couple of inches of water per hour, much less what we are seeing now with some regularly.

In the classic formulation attributed in the French Revolution to King Louis XIV, “here comes the deluge….” We’re not ready, but can we become able?

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Lesson from New Orleans Flooding: Money Matters

August 5th, 2017

New Orleans    Rolling from the dry of central Wyoming to the humid of New Orleans always takes a little climatic adjustment, but it’s not a bad thing. The weather forecast says rain and thunderstorms are expected daily throughout the week. The same prediction has been largely fulfilled over the last week. In New Orleans, this rainy season in the near tropics is called, “summer.”

Thoughtful people and friends ask, “how’s the flooding,” given the constant Weather Channel and news reports of the 9 or 10 inches of rain that fell within hours a week ago inundating parts of the city, especially the center of the bowl that defines New Orleans geography around the Mid-City section, close to where our main Fair Grinds Coffeehouse is located off Esplanade. Really, the local response is more shrug than a sigh, because from all local reports, it wasn’t that bad, though it is hugely worrisome for other reasons as we fear the storm next time. An estimated two hundred houses flooded. That’s terrible and tragic for the families involved, but, frankly, it’s a long way from “call out the lifeboats.”

Heads have rolled, but understand this clearly, they have rolled because of something rare in government anywhere today. These Sewerage & Water Board and Public Works officials were forced to resign or fired not because of the flooding or the inability of the drainage system to handle the deluge, but because they were not transparent: they didn’t tell the truth. They claimed the system was working at full capacity, and it was not. It was working at about 56% capacity. Of some 200 odd pumps about 15% were inactive, which isn’t good, but neither would have normally been catastrophic, but, welcome to climate change, this was an unusual rain event. The drainage system is New Orleans, when it’s working a full tilt, is amazing and, frankly, world class. It can handle almost 3 inches of rain an hour. Storms that would shut down other cities, are routine in New Orleans, and the system has been designed historically to deal with a lot of water.

Perhaps the usual strength of the operation has lured too many New Orleanians into a false security from city hall to stoop steps though, and that has been the current awakening. The horror is that the deluge revealed that three of the five turbines that run the drainage system were offline, two since an early downpour this summer and one for almost four years. For that to be allowed to happen without preparations during hurricane season is unconscionable, and has to be addressed.

A high ranking board member resigned in protest, blaming the city officials for not having produced cash to improve the system and claiming S&WB was being unfairly singled out. Once again, they fell – or were pushed – on their swords, as they should have been, because they were not forthright with the citizens, not because of a big rain and some flooding. Brickbats are being thrown at a couple of million that has been stuck in planning and unspent to clear out storm drains, and that’s a valid beef, but most of that was for drains in common spaces. There’s a drain across the street on my block. I’m not confused though. It’s my responsibility to get shovel in hand every couple of months and clean it out. Why would I take a chance?

Some of the system, including the corkscrew apparatus, that sucks the water out of the drains is more than 100 years old. There are estimates that it could take $1 billion dollars to totally upgrade and modernize the drainage system, which is a pretty steep price tag for a lower income city. This is part of the national crisis that Trump and others like to talk about, but few are willing to pay for.

We are close to the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Daily we read about the dangers of climate change on challenging environments like those of our precious wetlands and coastal areas in Louisiana.

We really don’t need too many more wake-up calls. We need everyone up and down the line to start putting their money where their mouths are.

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