The following is an excerpt from “Draining New Orleans: The 300-Year Quest to Dewater the Crescent City” by Richard Campanella, published by LSU Press. The book is available on Wednesday (May 3).

In the first full-length book devoted to “the world’s toughest drainage problem,” Campanella recounts the epic challenges and ingenious efforts to dewater the Crescent City. With forays into geography, public health, engineering, architecture, politics, sociology, race relations, and disaster response, he chronicles the herculean attempts to “reclaim” the city’s swamps and marshes and install subsurface drainage for massive urban expansion.

A Reckoning

As forensic investigators pieced together exactly what happened, New Orleanians came to comprehend a terrible new truth. The Katrina deluge turned out to be not the inevitable outcome of a noble system overwhelmed by a superlative storm, but rather a scandalous failure of a piecemeal amalgam of inadequate, under-engineered, obsolete, poorly inspected, and underfunded levees and floodwalls. They were all federal charges, as stipulated by Congress first in 1955 and more so in 1965, and once the facts became indisputable, the US Army Corps of Engineers assumed full responsibility.

The subsequent outrage and derision of the Army Corps soon became practically part of New Orleans culture. Activists committed to keeping the pressure on corps officials have since adopted a reductionist narrative of the 2005 catastrophe, insisting that it be called “the Federal Flood,” dismissing Katrina itself as a no-big-deal storm, and bristling at any mention of local complicity or culpability—despite the resistance of local agencies to gates on the outfall canals, environmentalists’ opposition to the Barrier Plan, and the Port of New Orleans’s advocacy for the Industrial Canal, GIWW, and MR-GO. Understandably, the passionate public discourse following Katrina focused on federal levees and floodwalls, as their failure was indisputably the proximate cause of the deluge. Better levees became a civic mantra, and “MAKE LEVEES NOT WAR” and “CATEGORY-5 LEVEES NOW” became popular bumper stickers.

What was harder to sloganize was the ultimate cause of the 2005 catastrophe, which was its hundred-year backstory—that is, how flood protection became ever more challenging vis-à-vis an expanding human domain upon a deteriorating delta.

How the manmade levees along the river had deprived the delta of fresh water and sediment.

How canals dug for navigation and petroleum extraction had led to the intrusion of seawater.

How fossil-fuel combustion had affected global temperatures, sea levels, and climate patterns.

And how municipal drainage triggered soil subsidence, lured development into low places, exposed people to mounting hazard, and helped turn a twelve-hour storm into a month-long flood.

According to the most thorough scientific investigation of the Katrina fiasco, “approximately 80% to 90% of [the flooding] came from the three catastrophic failures along the drainage canals [and] resulted in approximately half of the 1,293 deaths attributed (to date).”36 Yes, failed levees and floodwalls actually let the water in, and had they held, the drainage system would have won the day—or days. “The aggregate pump capacity,” wrote the investigators, “could have cleared the city of flood waters in less than three days if the levees had simply been overtopped without failing.”37 But because the levees and floodwalls did fail, the subsidence that drainage had caused made the subsequent deluge much worse, by trapping the waters in human-made, human-occupied bowls.

A drone photo shows Pumping Station No. 1 at South Broad Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Credit: Marco Rasi

Those failures made the world’s toughest urban drainage problem immeasurably tougher, and nearly vanquished the world’s second-largest drainage system—until a heroic team of S&WB engineers turned the tide at the turbines. Diesel burned, water boiled, steam formed, generators rolled, electricity flowed—all 25 cycles of it—and the great Wood screw pumps and the Sullivan pumps churned to life, sucking up floodwaters and discharging them through patched outfall canals. Incredibly, the engineers and operators managed to remove most of the water from the city’s main polders in just eleven days, far faster than the ninety days many predicted.38 Helping drain other areas was the Army Corps of Engineers’ Task Force Unwatering, which brought in truck-mounted pumps to remove a quarter of a trillion gallons of floodwater over fifty-three days, into late October 2005. In the interim, the powerful Hurricane Rita swept into Louisiana and mercilessly reopened the Ninth Ward breaches, as if to hammer home the searing lesson that, as one critic put it, “New Orleans was a beautiful machine that was left to rust.”39

Water destroyed nearly everything it touched in thousands of houses and offices, but it only soiled or slightly damaged the steel pumps inside the sturdy S&WB sheds. Electrical equipment was a different story, but even then, skilled electricians swiftly rewound motors and repaired consoles. “The beauty of our 25-cycle system is that all this stuff can be done in place,” said facility maintenance chief Gabe Signorelli. “You can pull the coils off the motor, send it out, get it rewound, bolt it back on, and then tie it into the next one … . All of our old equipment[,] our 1900-vintage pumps? All we had to do was drain the oil out of them and clean the reservoirs out, put the oil in, get the motors finished up … and put them back in service.”40

The obsolescence of 25-cycle electricity, the antiquity of the machinery, and the sheer idiosyncrasy of New Orleans’s uphill hydrology meant that expertise to re-dewater the flooded city had to come from in-house. New Orleans’s infrastructure was so thoroughly indigenous in its ingenuity that no one else on Earth could fathom it. “You can’t just hire a technician to fool with 25 cycle; they have to be trained on it,” said Richard Reese, who had manned the pumps in the Lower Ninth Ward until he had to be rescued by boat. “It’s unique to the Water Board”; [we’ve] had this since the turn of the century.” With the nation’s toughest recovery facing the world’s toughest drainage problem, one can understand how some S&WB operators felt overwhelmed. “Where do I start? Who do I contact?” Reese pondered. “How do I get these machines repaired?”41

Assisted by the National Guard, FEMA, the Army Corps, and other recovery workers, S&WB leaders devised a plan to assess the damage, repair what they could, restore services to the least-damaged areas first, and work outwardly. They succeeded in getting tap water and sewerage services back to unflooded neighborhoods within a few weeks. “When people returned to their homes in October,” said former Executive Director Marcia St. Martin, “they had drinking water. They had wastewater.”42 S&WB workers next tackled repairs in neighborhoods that had been lightly flooded, and then those deeply flooded, testing water quality before giving the greenlight. In steady increments, taps flowed, toilets flushed, and runoff got removed, tenuously, imperfectly, sometimes under flickering lights. The people of the S&WB brought post-Katrina New Orleans back to life, despite enduring $300 million in infrastructure damages and incalculable personal loss. 43

Richard Campanella is a geographer and associate dean for research at the Tulane School of Architecture. He is the author of 14 books, including “The West Bank of Greater New Orleans” and “Cityscapes of New Orleans,” as well as hundreds of articles on Louisiana history and geography. Credit: Marina Campanella

36. Emphasis added. The death toll in Louisiana has since been revised to approximately 1,600, with another 220 in Mississippi. Independent Levee Investigation Team, Investigation of the Performance of the New Orleans Flood Protection Systems in Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, vol. 1: Main Text and Executive Summary, 8–11.

37. Independent Levee Investigation Team, Investigation of the Performance of the New Orleans Flood Protection Systems in Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, vol. 1: Main Text and Executive Summary, 4–47.

38. Adams interviewed by Robinson.

39. Nicolai Ouroussoff, “How the City Sank,” New York Times, October 9, 2005.

40. Signorelli interviewed by Robinson.

41. Reese interviewed by Robinson.

42. St. Martin interviewed by Robinson.

43. St. Martin, “Sewerage & Water Board’s Emergency Response to Katrina,” 12.

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