Fix the pumps

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Why drainage matters

This post is pretty long, but it's essential to understanding the underpinnings of my pushing the Corps to repair the pumping system. I hope you take the time to read it. It also provides some background to the lead editorial in today's Times-Picayune, which says in part (about a proposal to raise flood insurance rates on severe repetitive loss properties):

"Worse, though, is Sen. Shelby's proposal to phase out subsidies for homeowners with at least four flood claims. Reducing the flood insurance program's exposure in these so-called [severe] repetitive flood properties is a fiscally sound goal: They make up only 1 percent of the program's policies, but pre-Katrina accounted for 30 percent of all-time payouts.
"The senator's proposal, however, would ignore projects that have lowered the risk in formerly flood-prone areas, such as in the Broadmoor neighborhood in New Orleans and in large portions of Jefferson Parish. These areas traditionally flooded constantly during heavy rains, but drainage improvements in the past decade changed that. It would be unfair to raise rates based on exposures that no longer exist or have been substantially mitigated."

I live in Broadmoor. It's geographically right in the middle of the east bank (at least the section west of the Industrial Canal). Here's a map showing the location. Four years ago, the Corps of Engineers and the Sewerage & Water Board completed a massive drainage improvement project in the neighborhood. It was part of the constellation of Corps projects collectively known as "SELA." SELA is (kind of) short for the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project. The SELA program was started after the May 8, 1995 floods here in New Orleans, which did hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and killed six people. The program is designed to improve drainage in areas around the metro New Orleans area which have traditionally flooded, reducing flood damage and thus flood insurance payouts, which come straight out of the federal treasury. This is done by reshaping old canals, installing new canals, upgrading pumping, or sometimes a combination of some or all those choices. The idea is to spend a little now to get a big savings later, and it makes sense. Louisiana tops the list of states for flood insurance payouts, with the metro-New Orleans area claiming the lion's share.

Under SELA, the federal government, represented by the Corps, paid 75% of a drainage improvement project, with the locals picking up the rest. There are SELA projects all over the area, but they are concentrated mostly in Jefferson and Orleans Parishes. In past years, it had been a real struggle to obtain funding to keep existing projects going, let alone start new ones. But post-Katrina, the rules have changed. Now the projects are 100% federally funded, freeing up millions for local drainage agencies to spend on other priorities. Also, the Corps received more SELA money in this past year - $200 million - than they know what to do with. It was a tenfold increase over typical amounts before 2005.

Broadmoor was one of the first recipients in Orleans Parish of SELA's largesse. Historically, Broadmoor had terrible flooding problems. Evidence was the tremendous concentration of "repetitive loss" properties in the neighborhood. A "repetitive loss" - or RL - property is one that had two or more flood claims of $1000 in any ten-year period since 1978, and Broadmoor had a bigger concentration of them than almost any area in the entire country.

Here's a map showing the number of repetitive loss properties broken down by census tract. Broadmoor is highlighted in red. As you can see when you click on it, there are 167 RL properties in our neighborhood.

We also had a huge concentration of "severe repetitive loss" properties, which are homes with four flood claims totalling over $20,000, or two or more claims which together equal the value of the house.

The SELA project in the neighborhood installed two huge underground culverts down the middle of Napoleon Avenue, to supplement the already big one under the street. Each is big enough to drive a city bus inside it. Similarly sized new culverts were also installed along the southern edge of the neighborhood, along South Claiborne Avenue from Nashville Avenue to Louisiana Avenue. The South Claiborne culverts are part of a planned future expansion of drainage improvements further toward the river along Nashville, Napoleon, and Louisiana Avenue. They don't play a direct role in draining Broadmoor.

The project also paid 75% for one of two new pumps installed at our local pumping station, Station Number 1. Both pumps are 60 Hz, 1200 cubic feet per second (cfs) behemoths. They are the biggest pumps in the city. The addition of the pumps actually gives the station more pumping capacity than it can put into its outlet canal (known as the Palmetto Canal). The pumps were ready in 2001, a year before the canals on Napoleon started accepting storm water.

In addition to a decade's worth of previously completed, locally funded projects in the neighborhood, it is the two new culverts in Napoleon Avenue that provide the storage and flow capacity that has completely reshaped Broadmoor, though one can't see that reshaping with the naked eye.

The SELA project allowed water to drain much more rapidly from the neighborhood. The extra pumping capacity allows for quicker draining, while the bigger canals allow for longer storage of the water in the underground drainage system, rather than on the surface, where it can flood cars and homes. And the proof is in the pudding.

On September 11, 1998, Tropical Storm Frances dropped 12" of rain on Broadmoor in the space of about six or eight hours. There was widespread flooding through the neighborhood. We got over three feet on the street in front of our house. The pumps caught up and the area was pumped dry that evening, but it was a stark reminder of the importance of drainage in a city below sea level.

Four years later in 2002, Tropical Storm Isidore dropped 17" of rain on the neighborhood. It was the first test of the new Napoleon Avenue culverts, which had just been hooked up to the drains on the side streets weeks before. In fact the streets were still torn up.

There was hardly any flooding in Isidore. My street stayed dry the entire time. And the insurance claims data backs up the effectiveness of the project. In 1998, there were 120 flood insurance claims from severe repetitive loss properties in Broadmoor resulting from Frances. In 2002, there were six resulting from Isidore. That's a 95% drop in claims from the "worst offenders" in the flood insurance program. SELA worked! Here's RL claims data for the neighborhood dating back to 1995. The effect of SELA is obvious.

FEMA was watching this, and took notice. I have confirmed that just before Katrina struck, plans were nearly complete to effectively move Broadmoor out of the floodplain on FEMA's flood maps. The "flood zone" designation would have changed from "A" to "X." An "X" zone is one where there is no significant hazard for a 100-year flood (FEMA expresses it as a 0.2% chance). Our Base Flood Elevation (BFE, which is a measure of the depth of water expected in a 100-year flood, for which there is a 1% chance) of 1.5 feet above sea level would have been eliminated; our flood insurance rates would have dropped precipitously, and the entire neighborhood would have become just as popular as other "drier" neighborhoods closer to the river. Similar moves were underway for Jefferson Parish neighborhoods that had also hosted SELA projects, as well as the New Orleans neighborhood of Hollygrove. Hollygrove, like Broadmoor had also gotten SELA money to build a new pumping station and upgraded drainage culverts, because of another cluster of severe repetitive loss properties. In fact, a meeting was held on the Tuesday before Katrina among FEMA and Jefferson Parish officials to discuss the flood map changes resulting from the fabulous success of SELA in JP. We were this close, and then Katrina hit.

FEMA pulled back all the flood insurance studies and changes to the flood maps after Katrina. They expect to have new preliminary flood maps issued for the metro New Orleans area some time in the middle of 2007. In the meantime, we are stuck with the old flood maps (from 1984), which do not reflect the SELA improvements and which are guiding rebuilding right now.

Another factor in rebuilding - one that is not well publicized - is that much of Broadmoor is a National Register Historic District and buildings that contribute to such a district are exempt from FEMA house-raising requirements after a devastating flood. Inside the historic district, 85% of the buildings are "contributing," meaning all those homeowners are not required to raise their houses, even if they received more than 50% damage, which is FEMA's cutoff for requiring "mitigation," aka house raising. Broadmoor is unique in this particular confluence of circumstances: 1) it flooded in Katrina; 2) it has an existing SELA project; 3) it's got a National Register District.

But many people are raising their houses to the existing BFE or way above it, without knowing that they don't really have to. SELA has already proven its effectiveness, and if they live in a contributing property, they are exempt from mitigation requirements anyway. They are operating out of the fear of future levee breaches. But if there's another levee breach and the city floods like it did before, that's pretty much the end of New Orleans anyway, so why bother spending $100,000 putting one's house up on nine foot stilts if the rest of the neighborhood will be empty shells after such a flood? No, the risk to be concerned about is severe rainfall, and Broadmoor is significantly more protected from that risk than it was before 2002.

All of this - the potential flood map changes, the diminishment of the severe repetitive loss problem, the lack of true cause for house raising - depends on the pump stations performing reliably. The pumps are the foundation of the flood maps across this entire area. And when they are upgraded, along with the pipes and culverts leading to and away from them, neighborhoods like mine stay drier longer and more often. But we can't reap those benefits if the damn things don't work.

So that's a big reason I've been so crazed about getting the drainage system back up and running. It's not just the short-term gains from staying dry in any given storm, but there are serious long-term benefits that accrue. They include lower flood insurance rates and higher property values.

Before Katrina, I didn't know anything about this stuff. I've taught myself, along with the help of dozens of individuals along the way. And some people believe I've got an axe to grind against the Corps, because they screwed up the levee designs, resulting in the horror that is Katrina. Yeah, I'm angry about that, but I want the Corps to work to justify the millions they spent in projects that actually help people, like SELA. Broadmoor benefited greatly from our SELA project, and we deserve to continue to do so. Otherwise, it's just money thrown down the drain.


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