//After the big freeze, New Orleans feels 300 years old

After the big freeze, New Orleans feels 300 years old

New Orleanians discovered in August that the city wasn’t prepared for summer rainstorms. Now a three-day Arctic blast has proved to be our undoing, so we’re clearly not prepared to handle winter weather, either.

Water pressure in Jefferson Parish dropped so low this week that Louis Armstrong International Airport had to set up portable toilets and curtail most food service Thursday (Jan. 18). The heat went out, too, because there wasn’t enough water to run boilers. What a welcome that was for visitors here for conventions or vacation.

Several high-rise hotels in New Orleans couldn’t get water to upper floors for people to use showers. Residents have been ordered to boil water before using it out of fear of contamination.

This is not a good way to start the city’s 300th anniversary year. We look every bit of our age this week.

For New Orleanians, this is at least the 13th boil water advisory since Hurricane Katrina. It’s the first since the disaster for Jefferson Parish.

The water pressure problems in Jefferson Parish are an indication of how unusual this icy weather has been, but that doesn’t make New Orleanians feel much better. City residents have been dealing with a patched-together water and drainage system for years. The system was creaky before Katrina, and the massive flooding after the levees broke made it worse.

A dozen years later, though, we ought to be farther along in repairing that damage. Instead, the Sewerage & Water Board is lurching from one emergency to another.

In August, a heavy rainstorm flooded homes and cars in Mid-City, Lakeview and Gentilly. S&WB officials claimed initially that the system was at full capacity during the storm, which they said was too intense for pumps to handle. But after City Council questioning they admitted that three of five power turbines and 17 drainage pumps weren’t working during the storm. Pumping stations weren’t fully staffed, either.

Then in early January during a few days of below-freezing weather, the S&WB ordered residents to turn off dripping faucets because the water usage was putting too much pressure on the system.

Now, two weeks later, a couple of nights of temperatures in the upper-20s knocked out the water system. Sure, Jefferson Parish is struggling with low water pressure, too. But that is a short-term problem for residents there.

Within a day or two, Jefferson will have its system running efficiently again. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, residents will be bracing for the next breakdown.

The Sewerage & Water Board loses 40 percent of the water it produces on a good day. Underground pipes are leaking constantly. The agency’s power plant is being propped up with generators.

S&WB officials have said the water system had a daily capacity of 180 million gallons. During the freezing weather this week, consumption spiked to 170 million gallons on the east bank. And the system couldn’t handle it. So, is the capacity really 180 million gallons?

“We have an old, tired system that hasn’t had the kind of deferred maintenance that a system requires,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “It breaks.”

New Orleanians understand that we live in an old city. The 300-year-old patina gives it the charm we love, but sometimes things are going to break.

The Sewerage & Water Board and generations of city officials let the water system erode well beyond its life cycle, though. Now it doesn’t just have breaks. It is broken.

S&WB interim director Marcie Edwards has four months to get the water and drainage system ready for hurricane season. Clearly that won’t be easy to do, but it must be done.

Then she is supposed to turn the S&WB over to a full-time executive director, who must find a way to modernize the system and make it reliable.

New Orleans is a beautiful city with a fascinating history and vibrant cultural offerings. But you shouldn’t have to boil water to wash your dishes or worry about whether it is safe to shower.