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The Pumps Of New Orleans

It’s been raining all day. and New Orleans is sinking. Brown water is backing up the storm drains, filling the intersections, creeping toward people’s front steps. Children run home from school with their pants rolled up to their knees. Parts of Freret Street are underwater. Cleary Avenue is impassable. At the Camellia Grill on the corner of Carrollton and St. Charles, a regular complains to one of the cooks. “We never flooded this bad when I was young. It’s all the damn concrete: there’s no place for the water to go.”

A few dozen yards from the Camellia Grill are the huge earthen levees of Carrollton Bend. Behind them, unseen, the Mississippi is rising. The red-and-white gauge at Carrollton Station reads fourteen feet above sea level, but there’s no cause for alarm: in years past it has hit eighteen, even twenty. People have to look up at freighters passing by when the river is that high.

By New Orleans standards it turns out to be a very ordinary rain, only 3.5 inches. The drainage system catches up with the surplus water before nightfall. The city has seen much worse—the May 3, 1978. rain, for example, when 9.6 inches fell. That’s about 10 billion gallons of water, or about 40 million tons, over the area covered by the drainage system (after accounting for losses through retention). Draining New Orleans during a heavy rain is like draining a lake, because the city is ringed by levees, and most of it is several feet below sea level. When rain falls on New Orleans, it tends to stay there.

New Orleans is ringed by levees, and most of it is several feet below sea level. When rain falls on New Orleans, it tends to stay.

But New Orleans has one of the best drainage systems in the world. Seventeen hours after the first raindrops hit on that May 3, the city was dry again. Subterranean canals big enough to drive trucks through moved storm runoff to larger open canals, where massive twelve—and fourteen-foot screw pumps lifted it over the levees and sent it out to sea. The pumps were invented by a New Orleans native named Albert Baldwin Wood seventy-nine years ago, and each one can move nearly half a million gallons of water a minute. The city has scores of these pumps in operation. Taken together, the pumps of New Orleans could suck the Thames dry at London.

New Orleans was settled by the French in 1718 on high ground along the Mississippi River. The natural levees that made the site so promising were mountainous by Louisiana standards—twelve to fourteen feet above sea level—but the city soon spread out into less and less desirable areas. Life on the bayou was never very idyllic: floods turned the streets to quagmires, corpses floated in their graves, and mosquitoes, which bred in the pools of water that abounded throughout the area, were so thick that they would “fill every room in the house,” according to the architect Benjamin Latrobe in 1819. Visitors waded through a foot of water during one embarrassing Mardi Gras, and Tulane University once had to cancel classes because of high water in the lobby.

Mosquitoes carried yellow fever, and in 1878 an epidemic killed 4 percent of the population, raising the city’s accumulated death toll from the disease since its founding to 100,000 people. Cholera and typhoid fever were also quite common. Conditions were extremely unsanitary. There was no sewerage system until 1899, so residents dumped refuse directly into the river. To avoid drinking river water, people collected rainfall in cypress tanks. The tanks rotted and the water stagnated, breeding more mosquitoes. The city’s entire drainage system consisted of a few weed-choked canals and four steam-powered paddle wheels that vainly tried to lift the storm run-off over the levees and into the lake. “Mud, mud, mud,” Latrobe’s three-word description of the city in 1819, remained accurate throughout the nineteenth century.

Conditions didn’t improve until the creation of the Sewerage and Water Board in 1899. (Women did not have the franchise in Louisiana at that time, but all property owners were allowed to vote in municipal-bond referenda. Since three-quarters of the city’s property owners were women, their support for the bond issue that established the drainage and sewerage systems was crucial.) The board was classified by law as “unattached,” meaning that only a statewide vote of the people can change its mandate—an important advantage in a state with Louisiana’s colorful political traditions. The board was given complete executive power over the city’s flood control, and it made an excellent start by hiring a young engineer named A. Baldwin Wood.

If any man could claim to have saved New Orleans from Its geography, it was Wood. Born a year after the great epidemic of 1878, Wood was a direct descendant of Francisco de Bouligny, one of the great Creole patriarchs of the city. Wood graduated with honors from Tulane in 1899 and promptly got a job with the board as an assistant manager of drainage. He immediately set about improving the city’s drainage system. By the age of twenty-seven he had invented a six-foot centrifugal pump that was the largest of its kind in the world. He followed that with an ingenious flap-gate design that prevented water from backing up the pumps when they were not in use. Finally, in 1913 he presented the board with the design and rights to a twelve-foot screw pump that had the capacity to move more water than any pump in existence.