Hurricane Ida Updates: Will New Orleans’ Levee and Drainage Systems Protect Residents From Flooding?

Photo source: National Weather Service

As Hurricane Ida threatens the Louisiana coast, residents of New Orleans and the surrounding areas are heeding the warning and evacuating en masse. Ida has the potential to be a Category 4 hurricane at landfall and come ashore around the Morgan City area, 82 miles away from New Orleans, on Sunday. The date also marks the 16th anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina made landfall.

On Saturday, Mayor Latoya Cantrell held a press conference encouraging residents who have decided to stay in the city to begin sheltering in place by midnight. Anyone planning to evacuate is encouraged to leave immediately as the window for safe evacuation closes.

Mayor Cantrell also ordered a mandatory evacuation for those outside of the levee system.

Those who have evacuated might have decided to do so due to the drainage system of the east bank of New Orleans relying on a patchwork power supply as a storm threatens the coast. According to the Sewerage and Water Board, there are two turbines, number 5 and number 6, and five backup generators, available to power the pumps that drain the city. 

A third turbine out of service and under repair, No. 4, is currently being tested. As of Saturday afternoon, testing was underway for Turbine 4, and the work on the turbine would continue until Ida makes landfall.

The Sewerage and Water Board said 96 of its 99 drainage pumps are available, which means they are near full capacity. However, the pumps that are down are at pumping stations in New Orleans East, Lakeview near Metairie Road, and Lakeview near Marina Drive, leaving those areas vulnerable. 

According to WDSU, the status of the Sewerage and Water Board’s power supply is as follows:

  • Turbine 1 – under repair: This is the oldest of the system’s steam-powered turbines, and at one point earlier this year was the only working one available. It was taken offline to address the noise it makes when in use — a problem compounded when the five electromotive diesel are in service. 
  • Turbine 2 – decommissioned 
  • Turbine 3 – decommissioned 
  • Turbine 4 – under repair: This steam-powered turbine has been in and out of service in recent years. It went down during a June 2020 storm, contributing to lingering floodwater on city streets. 
  • Turbine 5 – in service: This steam-powered turbine was brought back online in June after extensive repairs that followed a 2019 boiler explosion. 
  • Turbine 6 – in service: This is the newest equipment in the S&WB’s power supply arsenal. It’s powered by natural gas and generates 60-hertz cycle electricity, which is converted to the 25-hertz variety that the S&WB’s outdated infrastructure uses. 
  • Frequency changers – all available: These devices are needed where 60-cycle power from Entergy is used to run S&WB equipment, in addition to converting Turbine 6 electricity. Backup generators – all five available: The generators have often become a go-to power source for the Sewerage & Water Board, which acquired them after floods in the summer of 2017 revealed gaping deficiencies in its power supply.

As far as the levees that protect the city from flooding, there is more confidence.

The federal government spent $14.5 billion on levees, pumps, seawalls, floodgates, and drainage providing enhanced protection from storm surge and flooding in New Orleans and surrounding suburbs south of Lake Pontchartrain. The National Hurricane Center has projected that Ida could bring a surge of 10 feet to 15 feet. The surge barrier system in place is a 130-mile ring built to hold out storm surges of about 30 feet. Although the system could be overtopped in some places, emergency manager Heath Jones of the Army Corps of Engineers’ New Orleans District said that the system is designed for that. The system can withstand a storm bigger than Ida is predicted to be.

Jones said that he does not believe there is a danger of Ida’s storm surge topping the levees; city government has shown confidence in the system.

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