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S&WB drowns residents in lies following August flood

14th August 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Patrick Welch
Contributing Writer

Robin Grisaffe and a friend were caught on the I-10 bridge in creeping traffic and increasing rain as the waters rose around the city.

“Traffic was so bad my friend wanted to exit sooner than we otherwise would have,” says Grisaffe. The rain soon began falling in hard sheets. “When we started to exit, I could see ahead of me that the street was flooded and unsafe to drive through, so I decided it would be safer to get back up on the bridge. By the time I got back on I-10, the traffic was even slower. So, I tried to exit again at Esplanade Avenue, where it was flooded seemingly much worse. I drove through super deep water and decided to go up under the bridge and just sit.”

Water soon began to rise under the overpass, around her car. “And by now the area under the bridge was filled to capacity with other vehicles, so there was no getting out at that point,” she explained. Grisaffe and her friend sat in the car for three hours waiting for the rain to calm, and then another three for the floodwaters to begin subsiding.

This was not a scene from Hurricane Katrina, but rather from last Saturday afternoon, when a so-called “rain bomb” dumped eight to 10 inches of water on New Orleans in just a few short hours. Social media exploded with photos of flooded cars. What seemed like just an unusually heavy rainstorm ended up flooding homes and businesses. Even the French Quarter found itself shin-deep this time.

Businesses took water, from The Always Lounge on St. Claude, to The Saenger Theatre on Canal Street, to the The Broad Theatre and Zulu clubhouse, both a stone’s throw from the street’s pumping stations.

“I believed it was a typical flood where the water would blow in and blow out, but the water stayed in the building for well over 10 hours. At midnight it was still 2.5 feet,” attests Zulu President Naaman Stewart of the now ruined Zulu clubhouse. “We still have a mark on the wall where the Katrina water was, and this wasn’t too far under Katrina levels. We lost appliances, furniture, memorabilia across the street in the store; everything on the first level was destroyed. Most of our 2018 throws, all of those things were damaged. We closed the club and cancelled all our activities for now. We have to gut out everything that’s four feet high and under, take out insulation, remove a sculpture that was installed –and we are scared to start the process cause we don’t know if it’s gonna flood in the middle of it. And every day we can’t do that is a day we can’t operate and make money.”

Many assumed the pumps simply had not been turned on. As such, it was later terrifying to hear Sewerage and Water Board representatives claim the pumps had been running at full capacity. The S&WB’s Cedric Grant blamed the rain bomb on global warming. “There is no pumping system in the world that could handle that amount of water in that amount of time,” he said.

The next day Grant announced he’d be retiring earlier than planned, at the end of this hurricane season, with full pension of over $170,000 a year for the rest of his life.

Tuesday, August 8

In a special meeting held in City Council’s Chambers, the truth finally came out that eight of the city’s 121 main pumps were not working before the storm hit, along with six smaller pumps that always remain on to reduce groundwater.

“When I said they were all working at capacity, I’d meant that all the pump stations were working at the capacity they had available to them,” revised S&WB general superintendent Joe Becker, whose answer received boos from the crowd assembled in City Council chambers. Becker went on to admit that some of the stations were only operating at 56-percent capacity available to them at the time, before unceremoniously lowering the number again to 52 percent.

“I thought we were on a witch hunt, and we found witches,” said Councilman James Gray, who mercilessly hounded Becker about his dishonesty.

Councilperson Jason Williams also scolded Becker, “If your heart was working at only 58 percent, you’d know the difference. You should apologize..”

Becker conceded only, “I apologize for the confusion our message created.”

LaToya Cantrell asked what happened to the $3-million that had long ago been allocated for cleaning and repairing blocked catch basins. She was told that project was still under environmental review and so hadn’t officially begun.

During the questioning, it also came out that Homeland Security at City Hall was never informed of the broken pumps and that, though 911 began receiving panicked calls about the flood around 3 p.m., no warnings were sent out until 4 p.m.

Councilperson Susan Guidry said with impatience in her voice, “Online, you should be able to see all the pumping stations, and tell what’s working and what’s not.”

Becker agreed, “We should do that on the Water Board site. I know that can happen soon.”

After the tumultuous questioning, Mayor Landrieu called for the resignations of Becker and S&WB communications director Lisa Martin.

Thursday, August 10

At 3 a.m. last Thursday morning, citizens received an emergency text from the city, explaining that a fire had damaged an important turbines that provide the pumps with electricity. As of that Thursday morning, the city’s pumping system was drastically worse off than it had been during the previous Saturday’s flood. With a weekend of rain on the horizon, nearly all of the city was in danger of flooding again, save Algiers, the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East, whose pumps remained healthy.

In the morning, Governor John Bel Edwards announced a state of emergency for Orleans Parish.

Mayor Landrieu had several media meetings on that day including a press conference at noon. More information came to light, most notably that, of the city’s five energy turbines, one turbine had died back in May, then another during the June 22 flood. Another turbine has been dead since 2012. No one could answer why.

That afternoon, the city managed to hook into Entergy’s turbines to supply some power to the pumps.

Late that Thursday evening, The Louisiana Weekly spoke with City of New Orleans spokesperson Erin Burns, who provided an update. She said at the time that two of the five turbines were working. “I think it’s important to address the current situation in front of us,” said Burns, who mentioned that even those whom the Mayor asked to resign had still continued working on the project. “We lost power so we have crews working ‘round the clock, and in addition to that we’re bringing another [26] generators so the city’s not quite as vulnerable in case of another weather event.”

The turbine that helps filter drinking water was never off at any point, Burns promised, and the sewerage turbine is also safe. “The piece of the system that is vulnerable is the stormwater drainage system,” said Burns. As of that Thursday night, the pumps were running off of two working turbines and Entergy backup power.

In response to questions about when citizens can cease worrying about all this, Burns said, “We are hoping it’s not a Monday thing.”

Friday, August 11

Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed a declaration of emergency for the City of New Orleans and Governor John Bel Edwards signed an emergency declaration for the State of Louisiana as well.

“If all of the power from Entergy continues, the City will be able to handle typical rainfall,” read the Mayor’s statement.

An S&WB official speaking on the condition of anonymity told The Louisiana Weekly that one of the system’s turbines was not working at the time of the flood because it had been dropped after recently being repaired and needed to be sent back to Houston, TX to be recalibrated.

That same S&WB employee told The Louisiana Weekly that some of the answers S&WB officials gave to council members and residents last week were “outright lies.”

“There is a lot going on at the S&WB that residents don’t get to know about,” that person said. “And because of that, they are not able to do more to protect themselves and their property.”

Those who suffered flooding and want to sue the city may be out of luck though, says attorney Clifford Cardone.

“Hypothetically there a lot of factors, and you’d have to definitively show some sort of negligence or carelessness on the part of the city or one of its agencies – a breakdown of how the city would be at fault,” explains Cardone, “and that’s a pretty high order, because it would involve hiring experts to find the cause of the breakdown. It’s really just too costly to launch that type of litigation, and then if you do win, you’re going to be put on a back burner of people waiting to get payouts from the city. Some people on that list will go 10 or 15 years before they get paid.” For these reasons, says Cardone, “Most seasoned lawyers wouldn’t even take cases against the city.”

Since the August 5 flood, the city has received more reports of localized flooding on multiple streets around Lakeview, City Park and Gentilly.

The Landrieu administration said late last week that it is looking for outside companies to both run the S&WB on an interim basis and to do a look back at the issues the agency had with the running of the pumps and the disseminated information during and after the Aug. 5 flood.

WWL reported that Mayor Landrieu said the private company running the board on an interim basis is necessary amid the firings and resignations atop the agency.

Thus far, S&WB executive director Cedric Grant and general superintendent Joc Becker have announced their retirement, Dept. of Public Works director Mark Jernigan, spokeswoman Lisa Martin and S&WB members Scott Jacobs and Kerri Kane have tendered their resignations.

Landrieu said the company would do a “serious and thorough analysis and transition to the next executive director and leadership team.”

In anticipation of ongoing inclement weather last Friday afternoon, sandbags were made available to residents. The city also unveiled its new website for viewing real-time traffic accidents and street flooding, Streetwise (, where people can see the locations of reported traffic accidents and street flooding in real-time.

The City advised residents to take precautions to ensure their own safety and the protection of personal property, including moving vehicles to higher ground for those in affected areas; staying off of roadways during rainstorms except in cases of emergency or absolute necessity; remaining indoors during heavy rainfall; calling 911 to report any street flooding and life-threatening emergencies; and calling 311 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for any non-emergency services and general information.

The City’s Office of Economic Development is currently conducting preliminary damage assessments of businesses (contact (504) 658-4200). Its Office of Resilience and Sustainability and NOLA Ready have formed the New Orleans Building Hardening Guide on how to protect businesses from high winds, flooding, fire, winter weather and hail. And the City will keep residents updated about potential flood in a more timely manner through email alerts and on Twitter @NOLAReady.

This article originally published in the August 14, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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