Our levees and pumps aren’t enough to keep New Orleans dry | Editorial

By The Times-Picayune Editorial Board

Source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

May 27, 2018

The start of hurricane season always raises our collective anxiety level a bit. South Louisianians have to be on guard between June 1 and Nov. 30 — it’s a fact of life this close to the Gulf of Mexico.

As a reminder, the first tropical depression started forming more than a week before the season actually begins. But there are deeper causes for concern.

The region’s levee system is rated “minimally acceptable” and at “high risk” in two reviews by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — even with the 350 miles of levees, floodwalls, storm surge gates and pumps the corps built post-Katrina to help shield the New Orleans area. That integrated flood protection system cost federal, state and local governments $20 billion to create.

It isn’t enough. The hurricane protection system was built to withstand so-called 100-year floods, which have a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year. But storms that are stronger — 200-year storms or greater — could swamp parts of the metro area, the corps reviews show.

To put that in perspective, the surge in Lake Borgne that overwhelmed levees in St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans during Katrina was a 200- to 250-year event, scientists have said. Congress ordered the corps post-Katrina to look at safeguarding New Orleans from Category 5 storms, which would have meant 500-year protection. But that ultimately wasn’t the level of protection we got. We know that.

Even so, it is disconcerting to see arguably the strongest levee system we’ve ever had described in corps reports as “minimally acceptable.”

The corps reviews also raise concerns about the ability of local governments and levee authorities to pay for maintenance to keep the new system from eroding.

In April, West Jefferson voters approved a tax to raise $42.5 million over the next decade to raise and armor levees and do pump station maintenance. That was an encouraging sign, although the tax was less than levee authorities think they need. Voters had turned down a higher tax in 2015, so the authority lowered the amount and length of the tax this time. That strategy worked.

Twice in St. Bernard Parish, though, voters have rejected property tax increases to pay for maintenance on the $1.4 billion in levee improvements made around Lake Borgne post-Katrina. Opponents don’t think it is fair that St. Bernard is being asked to pay the full cost to maintain levees that also protect New Orleans and Jefferson Parish. They have a point, and leaders in those parishes need to come up with an equitable solution.

Ignoring levee maintenance isn’t an option. And if we are going to have a chance to get the federal government to invest more in our protection, we have to do our part.

The durability of the levee system isn’t the only concern going into the 2018 hurricane season. Although the Sewerage & Water Board has shored up its power supply and has more drainage pumps online, flooding last week during heavy rains caused widespread street flooding and turned underpasses into rivers.

The flooding wasn’t as bad as last August, when a downpour pushed water into homes and cars in Mid-City, Gentilly and Lakeview. But it is a reminder that the drainage system’s capacity can be quickly overwhelmed.

New Mayor LaToya Cantrell is putting a priority on getting stalled drainage projects completed and finding resources to upgrade the drainage system and implement the city’s water management plan to more smartly handle rainwater.

That will be costly. The Bureau of Governmental Research found in a 2017 report that the city will need $54.5 million by 2026 just to meet existing obligations and maintenance costs for drainage. That does not include money for new infrastructure.

The city has some funding from FEMA, but — as with levee maintenance — New Orleanians will need to pay to upgrade the system and minimize flooding.

Mayor Cantrell, as the board president, also must work to end the dysfunction at the Sewerage & Water Board. The latest example is a report released last week by the Civil Service Department showing that the S&WB has been cleared to hire 223 job candidates but hasn’t done it. These are applicants who are part of a pilot project to speed up hiring for the agency, which has been depleted by retirements and resignations.

This storm season, New Orleanians will have to be extra vigilant: Be prepared for street flooding and be ready to leave if a hurricane threatens.

For the long-term, we must push Congress to give us stronger hurricane protection and demand that the Sewerage & Water Board clean up its act. And we must be willing to help pay for our own safety.

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