Heavy rains lash New Orleans, flooding areas and closing gate on suburban canal

Published 8:20 pm Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Heavy rains lashed the flood-prone city Monday, inundating areas that had only recently recovered from Hurricane Katrina and leading the Army Corps of Engineers to close a gate on a suburban canal where the waters threatened to top the walls.

After more than 8 inches of rain fell on parts of New Orleans by late afternoon, Mayor Ray Nagin shut City Hall early, and schools also closed. People were asked to stay indoors until the flood potential subsided. More rain was expected overnight.

Waist-high water in parts of eastern New Orleans soaked businesses, some of which had recently reopened after being damaged by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

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All the city’s pumps were working properly, emergency preparedness officials said. Still, they urged motorists to stay off the streets to avoid creating wakes that could send water into homes and businesses.

Officials closed a gate on the Harvey Canal in Jefferson Parish; it was one of several in the area placed under new safety guidelines after Katrina’s waters breached two New Orleans canals, causing catastrophic flooding.

The corps has worked to strengthen the canal, about five miles from downtown, but engineers worried that water being driven into it might lead to flooding. The area around the canal includes homes and businesses.

Unlike the canal walls that broke during Katrina, the walls on the Harvey Canal are not considered at threat of being breached by rising waters, said Chris Accardo, the corps’ operations chief.

“The gates were closed to minimize seepage and overtopping,” he said.

Engineers want to be sure “that we don’t put pressure” on the flood walls, said Amanda Jones, a corps spokeswoman.

Water accumulated quickly in some older neighborhoods, a reminder of the city’s vulnerability to storms and reliance on a complicated system of pumps and canals for drainage.

Water nearly got into the Prytania Theater in the Uptown neighborhood, a cultural icon and favorite refuge for Ignatius J. Reilly, the antihero in John Kennedy Toole’s novel “A Confederacy of Dunces,” said Eric Ramstead, the theater’s manager.

Robert Ricks, a lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in Slidell, said that a flood watch was extended to midnight Monday and that some areas could expect 10 inches or more of rain. Much of southeast Louisiana remained under a flood warning until 7 a.m. Tuesday.

Despite the flooding potential, the rain also offered relief to parts of Louisiana that have been abnormally dry. Until Monday’s drenching, rainfall for New Orleans was about 11 inches below normal for the year.

The scattered showers and thunderstorms also came as a blessing to other drought-stricken areas of the Southeast on Monday. Still, climatologists say it will take more than a few scattered storms to pull the region out of a record drought.

Rainfall in Atlanta is almost 17 inches below normal for the year, and state officials have warned that a north Georgia reservoir that supplies more than 3 million people with water could be depleted within three months.

Almost one-third of the Southeast is covered by an “exceptional” drought — the worst drought category.

On the Net:

U.S. Drought Monitor: http://www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html