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New Orleans City Councilmembers Address Flood Response Concerns and Receive Public Input at Special Meeting

August 9, 2017

NEW ORLEANS - The New Orleans City Council held a special meeting today, August 8, 2017, at 1 p.m. to receive updates on the flooding that seriously impacted much of the City throughout the weekend. Each of the six councilmembers present expressed concerns and posed questions to representatives from the Sewerage and Water Board, Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, National Weather Service, Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Public Works.

The meeting was called by Council President Jason Williams during a press conference at City Hall on Sunday, August 6, following a briefing from the Landrieu Administration. The Council expressed its unease regarding new information that eight of the City's major drainage pumps weren't functioning properly. They also addressed the issues of lack of emergency preparedness, whether the City had properly cleaned catch basins before the storm and whether drainage canals had been adequately pumped out.

"Saying that this is the result of climate change, or that this is the new normal is unacceptable and offensive," said Councilmember Williams. "It is unacceptable to tell business owners who have used their life savings to open their businesses that this is the new normal. It is unacceptable to hear nationally that this is the new normal. Living in fear that a hard rainstorm will result in the loss of your car or home is completely and utterly unacceptable. Today we will figure out how we can use our existing resources to protect our homes and our property."

District "A" Councilmember Susan Guidry raised concerns over the flooding that heavily impacted residents in her district, who reported rising floodwaters hours after the rain had stopped. 

"What we learned today, only after direct and insistent questioning, is that the pumps and pump stations critical to Mid-City, to Lakeview and to other parts of District A were not operating at sufficient capacity," said Councilmember Guidry. "Unquestionably, people suffered as a result of the failure of those with knowledge, those in charge, to provide honest and timely information to us and to the public. The people spoke out today on the need to improve our gray and our green infrastructure, and as importantly, to hold those in charge accountable. We will do that."

"A lot of our anger stems from not knowing and the belief that nothing has been done in previous years," said District "C" Councilmember Nadine Ramsey. "Today, I hope that we will complete this fact-finding mission by getting answers to these tough questions."

Meteorologist Ken Graham of the National Weather Service gave a presentation to the Council detailing the nature of the storm and the timeline and criteria for which they sent out the flash flood alerts. Graham spoke to the Council saying that they practice caution in issuing flash flood warnings as they represent an immediate threat to loss of life or property. The National Weather Service issued the flash flood warning around 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 5. Members of the Council noted that 911 calls began coming in around 3:17 p.m. and inquired about the delay.

Graham went on to tell the Council that these alerts and the life threatening situations they represent can only be issued when verified by the appropriate parties. Councilmember Williams suggested that the 911 calls be used as verification and that a system be put in place to evaluate this data more quickly and efficiently.

Next, the Council heard from Naaman Craig Stewart, President of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, which is located just blocks from one of the City's pumping stations and experienced heavy flooding.

"This is unacceptable on every level," said Stewart. "For all of the businesses along this corridor to flood in the way they did, there's no excuse for that. It's like living across the street from the fire station and your house burns down. If in fact there are some significant and major issues with our pumping systems, those need to be made public."

Executive Director of the Sewerage and Water Board Cedric Grant and General Superintendent Joseph Becker attended the meeting to address questions in regards to their initial statement that all of the City's drainage pumps were functioning at "max capacity." On Monday, Becker confirmed that while all 24 pumping stations were operational, 14 of the 121 individual pumps were not operating during the storm. 

In his remarks to the Council, Grant stated that on Saturday, low-lying areas of the City received record-breaking rainfall and the volume exceeded the capacity of the Sewerage and Water Board's canals and pumps to remove storm water quickly.

"All standard operating procedures were performed ahead of these heavy rain events and all 24 stations were manned and operational," said Grant. "In total, 107 pumps were online and functioning and 14 pumps were out for service maintenance."

When asked what time the pumps were turned on, Becker said that it would be difficult to say given the time was different at the different stations. Councilmember Williams proceeded to pose questions regarding the faulty pumps.

According to the presentation, Turbine Generator 3 began losing its ability to generate electricity in May 2017. As a result, the Sewerage and Water Board issued an emergency request for proposal (RFP) to fix it. Turbine Generator 5, another 25-cycle turbine, began to lose its ability to generate electricity in July 2017 and is still out of service.

The Council stressed the need for legislation that would create an emergency system to regulate this process and to ensure speedy repair in the event of a malfunction. They also addressed the lack of communication between the Sewerage and Water Board and the Department of Homeland Security in dealing with this crisis. Becker replied saying the Sewerage and Water Board would look at its procedures to ensure it streamlines and improves that process.

"I think it's Mr. Grant's job, as with anyone in a position of power, to ensure the people that speak for them aren't misleading," said District "E" Councilmember Gray. "We're not here today to hear more data, we want to hear the truth."

Following the conclusion of the presentations and follow-up questions by the councilmembers, the Council opened the floor to members of the public for additional comment. The Council will continue to work diligently with the Sewerage and Water Board, the Mayor's Office and all entities to ensure the City is better prepared for future storms of this nature.

"We know everything was not working right and we will not accept that," said Councilmember Williams. "The time is up in New Orleans to placate citizens. Obviously, there were defects in the system, and again, I say it is unacceptable to go into storm season with compromised turbines and pumps without letting people know. If we need to develop legislation to prevent this from ever happening again, we will do that."


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