New Orleans Levees Hold; Flash Floods Seen in Tennessee Valley

The levees held and the party in New Orleans never stopped, banishing, in part, the ghost of Hurricane Katrina.

Tropical Storm Lee poured as much as 11 inches (28 centimeters) of rain, testing a new drainage and pumping system to protect the city from flooding following $10 billion of repairs after Katrina struck Louisiana in Aug. 2005.

The city’s pumping system is equipped to pump out 1 inch of water during the first hour of rainfall, and a half inch every hour after that. While torrents filled in the lowest points in the bowl that is New Orleans on Sept. 3 and yesterday, the street flooding from Lee was something residents see during every storm with significant rainfall.

The system “performed as designed,” said Marcia St. Martin, executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, with all pumps operating at “100 percent.” Improvements since Katrina include structures that act as gates to prevent the water from Lake Ponchartrain from spilling into the city. Those were closed on Sept. 2, St. Martin said.

Katrina, one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history, flooded about 80 percent of New Orleans, submerging for weeks some parts of the city in water as deep as 15 feet (4.6 meters). As many as 1,500 people died

Lulls between the downpours and an uninterrupted electric power supply allowed the city’s drainage system to work places. “Even though you can’t see the differences in elevation, the river is 12 feet higher than Broadmoor,” St. Martin said, citing the sea level of one of the city’s lowest neighborhoods.

French Quarter

In the French Quarter, the highest and driest portion of the city, visitors in town for the week-long Southern Decadence Festival partied through the rain and wind, though attendance did falter on last-minute cancellations.

“Bourbon Street looked like it does on Mardi Gras,” said Rip Naquin-Delain, a festival organizer. “It was a walking bar crawl,” he said of the popular tourist destination famous for food and music.

The storm “deterred some that would have driven in for the weekend,” Naquin said. “We had about 75,000 to 80,000 people. We were anticipating 100,000 to 150,000. But the people who were here, were here!”

It wasn’t as festive in Plaquemines Parish, a swathe of sparsely populated land running along the Mississippi River toward the the Gulf of Mexico. Parish President Billy Nungesser spent the holiday weekend patching levees with sandbags and crushed cement as the water spilled over along Highway 23, a route for the oil-industry hub along the Gulf.

Gulf Road

Waiting for the winds to shift, Nungesser said he hoped to have the highway open sometime today. Earlier, parts of the road were under as much as four feet of water. On Sept. 3, Nungesser cut a fence and used an airboat to herd cattle onto the highway so they wouldn’t drown.

In Lafitte, a small community about 30 miles (48 kilometers) to the south of New Orleans, as much as 65 percent of the town took on water, said Mayor Tim Kerner. Sandbags and other efforts saved the local schools, although “some areas are pretty bad,” he said.

Lafitte was flooded by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Katrina in 2005. It’s tough “to watch people devastated over and over again,” Kerner said.

Remnants of Lee are still capable of dumping seven to 10 inches of rain, and could cause flooding in a wide swath from Mississippi through northern Alabama and into the mountainous regions of Tennessee and North Carolina, said Ken Graham, the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Slidell, Louisiana. The amount of rainfall will be exacerbated by a cold front moving into that region, he said.

Flash Floods

“You start getting seven to 10 inches of rain -- and there might be some bull’s eyes higher than that -- that’s not good in a mountainous area,” Graham said. “There’s probably going to be some problems up there flooding-wise.”

Lee was about 60 miles from Alexandria, Louisiana, moving east-northeast at 7 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center said today in its last advisory on the storm. Winds have lost strength and are below tropical-storm force in the Gulf of Mexico, which accounts for 27 percent of U.S. oil output and 6.5 percent of natural gas production.

Hurricane Katia is moving at about 13 miles per hour in the Atlantic Ocean and is forecast to curve northeast without ever touching land, Graham said. The storm has sustained winds of near 110 miles per hour, making it a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Katia may strengthen over the next 48 hours, the center said. Even if it doesn’t steer close to the U.S. Eastern seaboard, it could bring high tides, winds and rain to the coastline, Graham said.

Cold Front Clashing

“That one is big enough that anywhere from the Carolinas northward you could get some impact from that,” Graham said. “It’s definitely something we need to still keep an eye on.”

The cold front clashing with the remnants of Lee creates a “moderate risk” of tornadoes being whipped up in Alabama and Georgia.

Graham said the hurricane season, which is over at the end of November, will reach its peak on Sept. 12, according to 140 years of storm data.

“We still have another two months, including this month, of a very active storm season,” said Sandy Rosenthal, founder and executive director of, a nonprofit activist organization founded after Katrina flooded New Orleans.

Lee, she said, “was just a dress rehearsal.”

FEMA Plans

Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has registered more than 48,000 Hurricane Irene disaster survivors for individual assistance as of 8 a.m. New York time this morning, agency spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in a telephone interview. Irene made landfall Aug. 27, cut a path of destruction from North Carolina to Maine, left 45 people dead and caused power failures to 6.69 million homes and businesses.

The agency is working with states including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Vermont plus Puerto Rico that were hardest hit by Irene, she said.

FEMA is calculating damages not covered by insurance, Racusen said.

“What we’re still doing with the damage assessments is to get a sense of what the uninsured losses are and we don’t have a cost yet,” she said.

The agency also has staff in place in the Gulf of Mexico region to respond to Lee. Racusen said she doesn’t know of any state governors who have requested a disaster declaration because of the storm.

FEMA is also poised to respond to Katia if its track should head toward the U.S. East Coast, she said. “It’s still a little too early to know what Katia’s track will be.”

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