NEW ORLEANS, LA (WAFB) - Parts of the city of New Orleans experienced torrential rainfall on Saturday, August 5 that flooded streets, stranded hundreds of cars, and swamped countless other homes and businesses. New Orleanians are used to flooding, but this particular event has garnered lots of attention both because of its surprise nature and the seemingly slow fall of the flood waters once the rain stopped.
A remarkable special meeting of the New Orleans City Council was called on Tuesday that resulted in a lot of finger-pointing, with much of it aimed at the city's Sewerage &Water Board (S&WB). Without getting too deep into the politics of the event, here are four things I believe New Orleans should begin working on immediately in anticipation of the next flood event.
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1. Be transparent & precise
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday's flood, the Sewerage &Water Board was adamant that New Orleans' drainage system was fully operational and operating at maximum capacity. Over the last two days, they've slowly backtracked from those assertions noting that 8 pumps were down for maintenance and there may have been some other issues. While it's unclear how much those 8 pumps may have reduced the flooding, anything less than the complete truth and complete accuracy only serves to increase an already high level of distrust among the public toward S&WB.
2. Put pump &pump station statuses online
There was rampant speculation among New Orleans residents that not all pumping stations were online during Saturday's flood. In some cases, people erroneously expected stations to be operational that are only intended for use during tropical storms and hurricanes. However, as noted above, reports over the last day or two also indicate some pumps were not working properly. Current status updates would not only reduce the confusion, but also might allow for people to act more quickly to protect their vehicles and property as a rain event unfolds. We learned this afternoon that one pump station in Lakeview was running at only 57% of its maximum capacity. Information like that provided in advance would have certainly put Lakeview residents at a higher alert level.
3. Put S&WB rain data online
S&WB officials and meteorologists alike continue to emphasize that 9"+ of rain in 3 hours is a rather rare event and difficult for even the most sophisticated drainage systems to handle. But if you went in search of rain totals in New Orleans on Saturday, you would have struggled to find anything close to that high. The two most frequently used sites – Armstrong International Airport in Kenner and Lakefront Airport in New Orleans – both only recorded about a half-inch of rain on Saturday. The torrential rainfall was very localized. You could have found some of the bigger totals on websites like Weather Underground that has a large network of home weather stations, but the accuracy of that data can be difficult to determine at times.
Imagine, however, if people had been able to log on to the S&WB website and watch some of those remarkable rain totals grow by the minute at the existing rain gauges at S&WB pump stations. The S&WB continues to make mention of a rain total of over 9" at one of their stations but that information is not accessible to the public. And, in fact, I don't believe it's even accessible to the National Weather Service in real time. That needs to change.
4. Install additional rain gauges around the city
It's somewhat remarkable and inexplicable that in a city that is so prone to flooding, there is a limited number of reliable, accessible rain gauges. The flood event on Saturday, August 5th was a perfect illustration of highly variable rainfall can be over a short distance, with some areas receiving up to 10 inches of rain in 3 to 4 hours while others picked up less than an inch.
Calcasieu Parish, home to the much smaller city of Lake Charles, has recently gone online with a mesonet of 80+ stations that report weather and stream data around the parish. I would strongly encourage New Orleans officials to explore doing something similar, perhaps with the help of grant dollars. But it should also be realized that appropriate budgeting will need to be done to account for ongoing upkeep and maintenance.