NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Lakefront Airport has flooded again. That’s no surprise because it sits outside the federal levee protection system. But what is a surprise to airport businesses is that a valve to drain the airport property is not fully opened.
Lake Pontchartrain waters had receded below a low-slung wall on the north side of the airport this afternoon, but the water on the tarmac and in airport buildings does not appear to be receding.
There's a valve that drains the airport property into a drainage canal on Morrison Road. The Orleans Levee District decided to keep it partially closed so it wouldn't overtax the Sewerage and Water Board’s drainage system.
Ankur Hukmani, who owns the Flight Academy of New Orleans and new charter company Jazz Aviation, says he has at least 3 feet of water in his hangar and offices and can't get a straight answer from officials.
“I was expecting them to open it all the way because from what they told us, they were waiting for the lake levels to recede, but the lake levels have receded,” he said.
Orleans Levee District Executive Director Gerry Gillen says it was his call to keep the valve partly closed. He said the 5.8-foot lake level is still too high to open it all the way.
“There is one valve that drains the entire airport,” Gillen explained. “We’ve had it partially opened since yesterday. That will take care of the rainfall on airfield (which is the highest ground on the property). But the lake got so high last night it was impossible to drain through that valve.”
Gillen said he’s worried that fully opening the valve will flood nearby neighborhoods off Morrison Road and Downman Road.
“The water goes into the city and will flood homes because it would go under the federal levees and then it would just be pumped back into the lake,” he said.
But the Morrison Road canal where the water drains was barely a foot deep when we checked it out this afternoon. Water was flowing only moderately from underground pipes running from the airport.
And the Sewerage and Water Board said it wasn’t telling the levee district to keep the water out of the canal.
“The opening of the valves at the Lakefront Airport is the sole responsibility of the Orleans Levee District,” board spokesman Robert Jackson said. “We coordinate the receipt of their water solely upon their request.”
Gillen said the levee district’s operation plan calls for the closing of all valves and flood gates. He said that if he’s sure there won’t be more rainfall, he would consider opening the valve some more.
The situation is reminiscent of 1998, when Hurricane George caused little damage to the city behind the flood walls, but $10 million in damage to Levee Board property, including the airport. The Levee Board kept the drainage valve totally closed during Georges and ended up getting sued by the airport businesses' insurance carriers. The Levee Board won by arguing that its decision saved the rest of the city from flooding.
Hukmani was just a student at the airport then.
“But from what I know now as a business owner, this is not right,” he said. “Something can be done about it and apparently it's not being done about it.”
Nerves are even more raw now because of all the investments made recently at the city’s first airport. Landmark Aviation opened its brand new building two years ago, with flood-proofing measures like power outlets raised 3 feet off the floor. Now it has about 2 feet of water in it.
A new hangar just opened. And then there’s the historic Art Deco main terminal, which was scheduled to reopen later this year for the first time since Katrina. The main lobby appeared to be dry because it’s up several steps, with a raised basement underneath.