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'Not A Garden Variety Storm': Here's What You Need To Know About This Week's Severe Weather

Phoebe Jones
Rain drenches New Orleans. March 17, 2021.

It’s not even summer, but the storms are back with a vengeance.

Starting Tuesday afternoon, South Louisiana is in store for a several-day stretch of possible severe storms and flooding rain. This is never good news, but it’s particularly concerning because New Orleans’ hobbled drainage system isn’t expected to reach full strength for another few months.

Severe storms are possible Tuesday afternoon through Thursday. Strong winds and hail are possible over the next several days, but heavy rainfall will be the biggest threat, according to Gavin Phillips, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Slidell, who said this is “not a garden variety storm” when compared to a typical summer rainstorm.

Six to eight inches of rain are possible over that period, Phillips said, with the potential for locally higher amounts.

The storm comes as the New Orleans drainage system remains crippled, lacking its needeed backup power. Two of the turbines that generate power for the Sewerage and Water Board’s (S&WB) drainage pumps are currently offline as they undergo repairs, leaving the utility with just two turbines and six diesel generators to power the drainage system.

That’s enough to fully power the drainage system’s pumps, Interim General Superintendent for the Sewerage and Water Board Ron Spooner said at a press conference Monday afternoon, but he still called the system “fragile,” since there aren’t additional power sources to lean on if any of the existing turbines were to fail over the next several days.

One of the S&WB’s turbines, referred to by the utility as T4, is expected to reenter service at the beginning of May. The other one, T5, could be recommissioned in mid-June.

Despite the lack of redundancy in the S&WB’s power generation system, Spooner emphasized that “this is not something for residents to panic [about].”

Spooner said 96 out of 99 medium to large drainage pumps are currently operational, and that all major pump stations would be manned during the next few days.

The City of New Orleans is taking the usual precautions ahead of the heavy rain potential. Deputy CAO for Infrastructure Ramsey Green said parking restrictions have been lifted indefinitely, meaning residents are free to park their cars on neutral grounds in order to avoid street flooding. Green also said six vacuum trucks are currently roving city streets to clean debris from curbside catch basins.

Forecaster Phillips said the severe weather is likely to be broken into two events. The first could start as early as noon on Tuesday and last through Tuesday evening. After a brief lull, the storms are expected to pick back up again Wednesday before a low pressure system kicks the rain out of the area on Thursday. As a result, Thursday is expected to bring the strongest chance of strong winds, hail and tornadoes.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.

As Coastal Reporter, Travis Lux covers flood protection, coastal restoration, infrastructure, the energy and seafood industries, and the environment. In this role he's reported on everything from pipeline protests in the Atchafalaya swamp, to how shrimpers cope with low prices. He had a big hand in producing the series, New Orleans: Ready Or Not?, which examined how prepared New Orleans is for a future with more extreme weather. In 2017, Travis co-produced two episodes of TriPod: New Orleans at 300 examining New Orleans' historic efforts at flood protection. One episode, NOLA vs Nature: The Other Biggest Flood in New Orleans History, was recognized with awards from the Public Radio News Directors and the New Orleans Press Club. His stories often find a wider audience on national programs, too, like NPR's Morning Edition, WBUR's Here and Now, and WHYY's The Pulse.

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