HOUSTON (Reuters) - New Orleans residents are questioning whether the city’s network of 120 pumps will be powerful enough to drain any floodwaters from Tropical Storm Nate, which is expected to make landfall just east of the city late Saturday.
Officials, seeking to calm nerves in the city of about 340,000, vowed the pumps should be adequate, despite recent failures that allowed flooding in even mild rains.
Nate was moving over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula at about 21 miles per hour (34 kph) on Friday afternoon and is expected to strengthen into a hurricane before slamming into the Louisiana coast. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has ordered mandatory evacuations for parts of the city.
Forecasts call for the city, which abuts the Mississippi River and a brackish estuary, to receive at least several inches (cm) of rain from Nate.
“I don’t have full confidence in those pumps,” said Humberto Suazo, chief financial officer of Link Restaurant Group in uptown New Orleans. “We have had so many mixed messages.”
Memories of the deadly flooding from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, which inundated much of New Orleans, are still fresh on the minds of many residents.
Landrieu told a press conference on Friday he had ordered the Sewerage and Water Board (SWB) to boost staffing at pump stations during the storm.
“Contractors are beginning work 24/7 to fix pumps,” said Landrieu, a Democrat first elected in 2010.
Questions about the effectiveness of the city’s drainage systems swirled after an Aug. 5 storm dumped up to 6 inches (15 cm) of rain, causing street flooding and underpasses to fill.
The SWB said it had improved or repaired pumps since that storm and improved the ability to power the pumps, according to Renee Lapeyrolerie, interim communications director for the SWB.
She said 26 backup power generators were added, she said, adding that 108 out of 120 pumps are currently operational.
“Since the Aug. 5 event we have been working 24/7 to be better prepared for rain storms,” Lapeyrolerie said. “We’re in a much better position now.”
Residents are especially wary after Hurricane Harvey flooded huge swaths of Houston in late August with more than 50 inches (127 cm) of rain.
“If we get 50 inches, there would be no way to pump that much water out of here,” said Steve Watson, owner of Kingpin bar and Midway Pizza in uptown New Orleans.
“Even 10 to 15 inches of rain, some low-lying areas are going to be affected,” he noted.
Reporting by Bryan Sims; Editing by Ernest Scheyder and James Dalgleish