An overnight fire damaged the power to the city’s pumping system, leading to an increased risk of flooding across the Eastbank of New Orleans as more thunderstorms approach the city Thursday afternoon, authorities said. All public schools in the city will be closed through Friday.
“Obviously, this is a serious situation, but it is not something to be panicked about,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards late Thursday morning in a news conference with Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
The fire Wednesday night damaged one of the turbines at the South Claiborne Avenue Sewerage & Water Board plant that powers many of the city’s pumping stations, reducing the city’s ability to drain stormwater from the streets. The turbine caught fire around 8 p.m. Wednesday, and he learned of it about 11:30 p.m., Landrieu said at a news conference around 2 a.m. Thursday.
“We are right now running on our last backup power source,” Landrieu said. “Crews are on site right now working to repair the turbine and we’re doing eveything we can to secure backup power to restore power to these power stations. This could be as early as later today, but it could be longer. We just do not know that yet.”
Because more thunderstorms are expected this afternoon, city officials are urging residents to prepare for possible flooding by moving vehicles to higher ground and staying off the roads during any upcoming rain. The governor has also signed a precautionary declaration of emergency to allow the state and city to coordinate quickly if flooding occurs, Edwards said.
If Entergy does not lose power, the city should be able to maintain power to the pumping stations during a typical rainfall, Landrieu said. While work continues on the damaged turbine, Landrieu said the city has 14 2-megawatt backup generators on the way, but they have yet to arrive and take time to install.
“We are at risk,” Landrieu said. “If we have a massive rain event that comes up on us at the last minute and creates the kind of flooding that we had, the power that we have available to us now will not be sufficient to pump the city out in the time that we need. We need more power, and we need more redundancy.”
The rainfall over the weekend “put more water in the city than Hurricane Katrina,” five to nine inches of rain, Landrieu said, and more than any pumping system in the world could handle. The diminished capacity of the pumps kept it in the city longer, but with another turbine out of service, the city certainly could not handle a repeat of that event today, Landrieu said.
The repairs to the damaged turbine are progressing with the hopes of bringing it back online by Thursday afternoon, Landrieu said in a subsequent news conference at 11:30 a.m. But, “there’s a lot that can happen between the lip and the cup,” and the progress should not be taken as a guarantee that the system will be ready.
“We are going to be vulnerable in the next 24 to 48 hours, potentially,” Landrieu continued. “I’m not sure that we are, but given the occurrence of the last week and a couple of weeks ago, I want to make sure the citizens understand that.”
All Orleans Parish schools — including charters — are closed Thursday and Friday because of the uncertainty around the pumping capacity, said Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.
“The goal of making this decision at this time is to allow families and staff ample time to plan and secure childcare for the remainder of the week,” Lewis said.
Landrieu also convened an emergency meeting of the Sewerage & Water Board, where he announced that he had received resignation letters from officials including executive director Cedric Grant, general superintendent Joe Becker and communications director Lisa Martin. Landrieu also announced that he is seeking an independent, private company to provide temporary leadership of the agency, as well as an after-action review of the problems surrounding the flooding.
The National Weather Service calls for a 60 percent chance of rain Thursday, with thunderstorms possible primarily after noon.
“Numerous showers and thunderstorms are expected today, primarily from the late morning hours through the early evening hours,” according to a hazardous weather outlook issued by the National Weather Service New Orleans office shortly before 4 a.m. “A few of these storms could become strong, producing gusty winds, frequent lightning and heavy rainfall that could result in localized flooding.”
The power loss only affects the Eastbank pumping stations — not those in Algiers, New Orleans East or the Lower Ninth Ward — and does not affect the drinking water supply, the city said.