No (economic) Life Without Water

City has to fix water drainage and delivery issues or face loss of business, including sporting events


For the past several weeks, it has been fun to think about the possibility of the NFC Championship between the Saints and Falcons coming through New Orleans. Those daydreams were dashed last weekend of course when both teams were expelled from postseason play. At the time, the loss of what was sure to be a huge party was unfortunate. But after the week New Orleans and southeast Louisiana has had maybe a sliver of economic luck was on the region’s side.

After days of freezing weather conditions, Orleans and Jefferson parishes have experienced strains on their water and electric systems resulting in a domino effect of real-world economic issues. To avoid frozen and burst pipes, residents ran their faucets. That demand and broken pipes throughout both parishes caused the systems’ pressure to drop. The decrease in pressure triggered an advisory requiring residents to boil water for a full minute before consuming it. But it has led to further issues for commercial ventures, including local hospitals and schools, as well as those central to the region’s economy, the airport, restaurants and hotels.

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Yesterday, guests at Louis Armstrong International Airport, New Orleans’ gateway to the world, were forced to use portable toilets after the airport’s bathrooms became inoperable. Lack of water for toilets and showers forced many hotels in the region to stop accepting reservations ahead of the weekend and find accommodations for their guests at other venues. Many restaurants were forced to close due to the lack of reliable water pressure.

At a joint press conference, Thursday, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni said they hoped water systems in both parishes could be back to normal by Monday.

Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, told The Advocate that the city’s water issue is “an extremely difficult situation” for the tourism industry. He said hotels without water pressure are trying to relocate guests to hotels with sufficient pressure, but admitted some visitors went home.

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Now, imagine if the Saints and Falcons had won their respective games, and they were scheduled to square off in the Superdome on Sunday for the chance to go to Super Bowl LII. With an influx of the opposing team, their fans, and international media all in town for the action, New Orleans would have been center stage, a star in the bright lights of the sports world leading up to the game. Talk about disastrous. If the NFC Championship had been played in the Crescent City, instead of the game, the current of an unending series of crises the city and surrounding region is facing would be a bruising international news story.

So the good news, if there is any, is that the city hasn’t been exposed as much as it possibly could have been – a non-lethal wound, if you will. Unfortunately, the bad news is that problems continue to confront the city and the region. Boil-water advisories are issued so frequently in the city that local restaurateurs have established procedures to work around the problem. But neither they nor hoteliers have a way to work when water pressure can’t be sustained.

New Orleans governance got a black eye last summer when the city flooded twice and it was revealed that the Sewerage & Water Board relied on out-of-date, 25-cycle electric turbines, with replacement parts must be built from scratch, to power the drainage pumping system when 60-cycle power became the standard in the mid-20th century. The government estimates upgrading to modern equipment will cost more than $1 billion.

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God only knows where that money will come from, but it’s a bit of an existential threat. Patches are no longer working. A major overhaul is needed, and it’s scary to think what happens if there is no fix in sight. Will residents continue to put up with the city’s faults or seek to live in areas that don’t flood in a hard rain? If businesses, hotels and restaurants can’t depend on the city for services, will they continue to invest in New Orleans? If the hotel and restaurant industry and the tax money they provide fades, what does that mean for the city’s future? Does it mean conventions and multi-million dollar events like the College Football National Championship, which the city is set to host on Jan. 13, 2020, or the Super Bowl, last played here in 2013, might disregard New Orleans’s next bid to host either in lieu of a city that can welcome guests to warm airports, hotels, and restaurants with running water and indoor plumbing?


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