Remembering the May flood(s)
On the morning of May 3, 1978, the heavens opened and more than 10 inches of rain descended upon the New Orleans area, flooding streets, sending water into buildings, overtaxing pumps, forcing the airport to shut down and making life miserable for just about everyone. It was just one of a series of deluges that have struck Louisiana in May, notably in 1953, 1994 and 1995. But until Katrina-related flooding put 80 percent of New Orleans under water, the May 3, 1978, flood was topmost in the collective memory.
Flooding is still a recurring problem in the New Orleans area, as the Aug. 5 downpour reminded everyone. A $14 billion levee system is designed to prevent a catastrophic flood like the one that hit when the levees failed as Hurricane Katrina swept through, but for non-hurricane situations, New Orleans is learning that it must improve its aging, calamity-prone infrastructure that is supposed to keep its citizens safe and its water supply pure.
- Although New Orleanians were ready to attest that the 1978 rainfall reached levels that might have made Noah think about building an ark, the National Weather Service couldn’t provide an exact figure of how much rain fell because its Audubon gauge broke.
- Five people were killed in that flood, and damage was estimated at $240 million (almost $895 million in 2017 dollars).
- While New Orleanians were coping with the flood on that May day, people elsewhere were celebrating Sun Day, which was designed to focus attention on the importance of solar energy.
- The May 3 torrent didn’t stop the Jefferson Parish Council from slogging through a five-hour meeting, and that was after council members had deferred about 20 percent of the agenda.
- That flood hit a month to the day after Bob Breck started what would be a 38-career as WVUE-TV’s meteorologist. The streets around the studio were flooded, Breck said in a 2016 interview, so Alec Gifford, the news director, decided to show what the flooding looked like by driving a car into a side street and having Breck photographed as he spoke atop the vehicle. Although Breck admitted that he briefly considered the possibility he could be electrocuted, he said in the interview that it was “a great shot.”
- A 7-inch downpour on May 9, 1994, not only snarled traffic and flooded streets but also made inroads into the swank Pontchartrain Hotel, where housekeepers rolled up rugs and made a little dike of towels.
- Nearly 20 inches of rain poured down on May 8, 1995, flooding neighborhoods, turning streets into rapidly flowing rivers and carrying away bags of garbage that had been put on the curb for collection the next day.
- That 1995 deluge was part of a storm system that had killed 19 people in Texas before hitting Louisiana, where it killed another five.
- According to a 2015 report from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, nearly two-thirds of all presidential disaster declarations since 1953 were flood-related. Moreover, the report said, such declarations had risen during the preceding 60 years, from about eight a year in the 1950s to a high of 51 in 2003 and 2010.
- A May 1953 flood in southwest Louisiana surrounded some 600 houses in Lake Charles, forcing about 1,750 people to evacuate and inflicting damage estimated at more than $2 million (slightly more than $18 million in today’s dollars).
- Despite the number of floods that have happened in May over the years, Tulane geographer Richard Campanella said the months with the greatest rainfall in New Orleans are July and August. May rainfall totals are “heading in the higher direction,” he said, but the large number of May floods is “just coincidence.”
From the start, New Orleans’ location has presented challenges for locals, chief among them its tendency to flood frequently, the Tulane University history professor Lawrence N. Powell wrote in “The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans.” But the city’s founder, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, realized that the city’s location along the Mississippi made the site ideal for commerce. New Orleans’ metamorphosis into an important trade center resulted in a cosmopolitan city early on, flooding notwithstanding — and one in which hip-waders, white shrimping boots and designer galoshes have become a decidedly practical fashion accessory.