Dennis Persica: NOLA water problem sobering reminder

The blackout at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome last month was an embarrassment before the nation. But a small fire, quickly contained, at the Sewerage and Water Board’s South Claiborne Avenue plant poses a much more existential threat to the city of New Orleans.

Much of our water and sewer infrastructure is old and riddled with problems. There are leaks in the water lines, but as long as the system remains pressurized, nothing can get in them.

So far, we’ve been lucky with the recent water-system outages; they’ve led to boil-water advisories of only a day or so, usually with no bacterial intrusion found.

Imagine what a longer or more-severe crisis would do to the two signature mainstays of the New Orleans economy if the major downtown hotels or the city’s myriad restaurants aren’t able to use city water for a significant time period.

You can truck in all the bottled water you want for drinking, but not being able to use dishwashers connected to the water system would be a problem for restaurants and hotels.

Hotels also would be up to their necks in headaches if they couldn’t run laundries or had to tell their guests not to use the showers and bathroom sinks.

This is not new, of course. If some New Orleanians were unaware of the need for water-system improvements before, they certainly found out when their water bills went up over the last few months.

The revenue from the rate hikes is supposed to fund water-system upgrades.

It’s really a daily miracle that drinkable water can be pumped to the city’s farthest reaches – the West End and eastern New Orleans, the Lower 9th Ward and Lower Coast Algiers.

It’s even more miraculous that it can still be done after the damage from Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans residents and their public officials should be saying novenas for higher powers to continue to show mercy on us and ward off any public-works catastrophes before the improvements kick in.

(On the other hand, a fatalist might point out that the Superdome power failure happened after an upgrade.)

The water system isn’t our only worry. Hurricane Isaac showed that a weak hurricane can knock out our electrical grid.

And it doesn’t even take a hurricane to do that. Katrina made us forget that even a tropical storm can do damage to the electrical system and leave people powerless for a day or longer.

That’s what happened after Cindy, that storm that hit us a few weeks before Katrina changed our lives forever.

There’s been a debate since New Orleans’ earliest days over whether settling here was a good idea. When the city was just the “sliver by the river,” the location seemed OK.

But then the city grew into lower-lying areas. Suburbs both within and outside the city limits were built on land that had to be reclaimed from marshes and lakes.

Soil subsidence and coastal flooding became ever-present dangers. Meanwhile, I haven’t even mentioned coastal erosion and rising seas.

New Orleans has faced threats throughout its history: from hurricanes and massive fires to flooding and mosquito-borne pestilence.

The threat of pandemic-level diseases spread by mosquitoes has greatly diminished, as has the threat of a fire that could wipe out entire blocks (as long as the water system remains pressurized, that is).

But this strange, precarious yet wonderful place where Bienville decided to build a city three centuries ago still faces enormous dangers today.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.