NEW ORLEANS, July 12 (Reuters) - The rain started pounding New Orleans about the time Jeff Carerras put on his morning pot of coffee. Before it was done brewing, floodwaters were lapping at the door of his bar, Tracey’s.
He was prepared to kayak through his Irish Channel neighborhood – among the highest elevations in the city and long considered safe from flooding.
“I’ve been in the Irish Channel since 1998, and I’ve never seen it like this,” said Carrera, 49, as he sipped a beer and recalled the 2005 hurricane that killed 1,800 along the Gulf Coast. “We didn’t get a drop of water here during Katrina.”
As Tropical Storm Barry takes aim at New Orleans, with landfall expected on Saturday, the widespread flooding from Wednesday’s thunderstorm that sent Carerras paddling has many residents and officials worried that the city’s aging system for pumping out rainwater cannot keep up with seemingly more frequent and intense rainstorms.
The city’s pumping system has faced a hail of criticism since it failed during an Aug. 5, 2017, thunderstorm, when 18 of the city’s 120 pumps stopped working altogether and the system’s faltering power supply failed to provide enough electricity to keep the rest of the pumps running at full capacity. That failure turned a moderate rainstorm into a major flood in many neighborhoods.
The city’s Sewerage and Water Board has since invested more than $85 million in repairs and renovations, essentially cleaning out its rainy-day reserve fund, said agency spokesman Richard Rainey.
But the antiquated system - built more than century ago and powered mostly by steam – still cannot keep up with intense rainfall. The Sewerage and Water Board is now pulling together proposals for a more ambitious modernization.
“I mean, who still runs on steam power?” Rainey said. “This thing was designed in the Teddy Roosevelt era ... We need to get off steam, which is part of a massive plan we are coming up with in the next couple of years.”
For now, the system performs to its design capacity. During Wednesday’s rain, all but two pumps out 120 were working, Rainey said.
The trouble is storms here are increasingly overwhelming that capacity - the system can generally only remove about an inch (2.5 cm) of water in the first hour of a storm and a half-inch in each subsequent hour.
“We had eight inches of water fall in less than three hours” on Wednesday, Rainey said. “That’s insane.”
That sort of extreme storm is becoming less and less rare these days.
Miranda Duchesne, a law student at Loyola University, moved to New Orleans on the day the pumps failed in August 2017. She could not unload her moving truck for hours as the water swamped her street in the Mid-City neighborhood.
That episode - along with the repeated flooding of her car at her new place in the Irish Channel - has bred a deep cynicism, common among New Orleanians, of the city’s pumping system and the agency that runs it.
“The pumps don’t work. They’re lying,” Duchesne said as she sipped a locally made Abita Strawberry beer at Tracey’s bar. “That’s always their excuse - it just rained too hard.”
If the slow-moving Barry brings the rainfall forecasters expect, Rainey warned the pumping system could again be overwhelmed.
The pivotal factor will be how fast that rain falls.
“If it falls over three or four days, we can handle that. If it falls in a short timeframe, we are going to see what we saw” on Wednesday, Rainey said. “We are telling the public to expect some flooding and prepare for it.”
Adding to the angst is a historically high Mississippi River, which is predicted to rise to 19 feet (5.8 m) with Barry’s storm surge. Officials and forecasters here say an expected 15 to 20 inches of rain may pose an even bigger threat to the entire city and region.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built most of the region’s flood defenses, has projected levees could be overtopped mostly in the southern end of Plaquemines Parish, the small strip of land that extends along the Mississippi as it ends in the Gulf of Mexico.
The river levees should keep almost all areas safe, said Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett, even with river levels projected at nearly 20 feet above sea level – dangerously close to levee heights that typically range between 20 and 25 feet.
“Overtopping is not the biggest concern,” said Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist with the Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center in Slidell, just east of New Orleans. “The biggest concern is 10 to 20 inches of rainfall.”
Reporting by Brian Thevenot; editing by Scott Malone and G Crosse