Flooding in New Orleans: What is the fix?

What creative thinking comes from trauma? (Photo: Wiki)

August 5, 2017: I was 17 years old and looking forward to the start of my senior year of high school. We were in the midst of hurricane season while dealing with the heat and humidity of summer in New Orleans. A routine thunderstorm ran through the city that day, but it turned out to be anything but ordinary. Nine inches poured over the city and flooded businesses, houses, cars, and streets (8). What was even more shocking was residents noticed that the water was not subsiding. The rainwater stayed on the streets of New Orleans for hours, and residents were left to watch their cars and houses flood with no relief; it felt like a true overüberdehnungism because the hours felt like days.

Everyone’s eyes were on the Sewage and Water Board of New Orleans, who has a dishonorable reputation in the city. On August 5, 2017, only two out of five turbines were working and 17 out of 120 pumps were out of service (8). Residents were horrified because we were in the midst of hurricane season so the water system should have been at its fullest potential. Weeks later, an outside engineer was hired to diagnose issues with the water system and found that two pumps lost power and reversely pushed water back to the streets (8). This thunderstorm created greater distrust amongst the citizens of New Orleans and the Sewage and Water Board. Now, residents want a steadfast plan to solve the flooding issue.

Urban flooding is an issue in cities everywhere; cities such as Houston, San Francisco, Chicago, and Pittsburgh are experiencing urban floods that come with a financial and human cost. From 1960 to 2016, there was $107.8 billion dollars in direct property damage due to urban flooding; this flooding affected 20,141 urban counties and millions of people (5). Climate change is only making the issue worse by increasing temperatures and water levels. The issue of urban flooding can largely be blamed on urbanization. As cities grow and evolve, miles of pavement are laid over bodies of water like creeks, bogs, and underground streams which act as natural flood management (2). Uninhabited areas naturally rid of flood water through the water cycle: “it either soaks all the way to the ground and becomes groundwater; runs down valleys into bodies of water and finds its way to the sea; is taken up by plants; or just evaporates,” (2). The water cycle is disrupted when water sources are covered with highways, paved roads, parking lots, and skyscrapers. Water has nowhere to go but up, so flooding quickly becomes an issue in urban areas.

New Orleans is the perfect storm for this climate change fallout. The city is below sea level so it is already extremely prone to flooding. Also, the size of the homeless population of New Orleans is alarming; according to the 2018 census, there were 1,179 homeless people in the city. The city is also overpopulated, which increases the pressure on sewer systems and prompts urban expansion in areas that are at risk of flooding (7). Urban flooding is going to continue to be an increasingly alarming issue as long as the number of cities increases. The real flood problem lies within the infrastructure of cities instead of the number of cities, though. Because of this, a movement has begun that is attempting to create a smarter infrastructure for cities to address the urban flooding problem. 

Cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago, and San Francisco are attempting to become more sponge-like by rebooting their infrastructure. There needs to be a way for water to be absorbed in cities instead of flowing through the streets. The rain-retention capacity has to be restored and this can be done by using green infrastructure elements (2). First, permeable pavements can be installed to create room for rainwater to seep through. Traditional pavement consists of asphalt, sand, and gravel in a compact structure that lets little to no rainwater in (2). Permeable pavements are more porous, so rainwater can seep through the pores into a stabilizing material that acts as a reservoir (2). The water can slowly disperse into the soil underneath the pavement with time. This solution will create “a more natural hydrologic balance and reduce runoff volume” because it will soak up water and slowly release it into the soil (1). This type of pavement has another benefit, which is its effect on the concentration of pollutants by trapping them or breaking them down (1). A neighborhood in Pittsburgh called Four Mile Run was experiencing extreme flooding during heavy rainstorms that regularly flooded streets and basements (5). A collaboration between the neighborhood and the Penn State Center created a storm-water mitigation project to combat the issue by installing permeable sidewalks and curbs. This project has decreased the neighborhood’s storm runoff tremendously (5). Now, the city of Pittsburgh is looking at ways to implement this example of green infrastructure into the city as a whole. 

This solution does have its limitations. Because permeable pavements trap pollutants, the pores get clogged and the permeability of the pavement dissipates (1). The upkeep of the pavement is intense; according to researchers, the pavement needs maintenance two to four times a year (1). Low-clogging pavements are being created to combat this issue. Money is also an issue; in 2016, a pavement condition study found that 44% of streets in New Orleans needed maintenance (6). The city estimated that they would need about five billion dollars to fix the streets, along with 35 million dollars per year for preventative maintenance costs (6). 

Overall, permeable pavement is a viable option for New Orleans, a city that is experiencing a serious urban flood issue. New Orleans is constantly revamping streets, so permeable pavements would be a solution to two issues: pothole-filled streets and urban flooding. Flooding in New Orleans has been a problem for decades but the citizens have always found a way to stay positive and rebuild. Although citizens are trying to do their part to combat the issue by planting trees and cleaning drains, the government needs to actively mitigate the urban flooding issue by seeking out successful solutions from other cities. 


1 Evaluating the Potential Benefits of Permeable Pavement on the Quantity and Quality of Stormwater Runoff, www.usgs.gov/science/evaluating-potential-benefits-permeable-pavement-quantity-and-quality-stormwater-runoff?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.

2 How to Build a City That Doesn’t Flood? Turn it Into a Sponge City  (having issues creating a citation with this website)

3 “Hungry for Change: A Look into The New Orleans Food Crisis.” ViaNolaVie, www.vianolavie.org/2019/12/16/hungry-for-change-a-look-into-the-new-orleans-food-crisis/.

4 Sciences, National Academies of, et al. “Magnitude of Urban Flooding.” Framing the Challenge of Urban Flooding in the United States., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 29 Mar. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541178/.

5 “Partnership to Prevent Flooding in Pittsburgh Neighborhood.” Penn State Center Pittsburgh, 4 June 2018, pittsburgh.center.psu.edu/about-us/news/partnership-to-prevent-flooding-in-pittsburgh-neighborhood/.

6 “Paying for Street Maintenance in New Orleans.” Bureau, www.bgr.org/report/paying-for-street-maintenance-in-new-orleans/

7 “Read ‘Framing the Challenge of Urban Flooding in the United States’ at NAP.edu.” National Academies Press: OpenBook, www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/8.

8 WDSU Digital Team. “One Year Later: Remember the Aug. 5 Storm That Left Parts of NOLA Flooded?” WDSU, WDSU, 5 Aug. 2018, www.wdsu.com/article/one-year-later-remember-the-aug-5-storm-that-left-parts-of-nola-flooded/22629755.


This piece was written for the class “Alternative Journalism,” which is taught at Tulane University by Kelley Crawford. 


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