It is a widely known fact that New Orleans lies below sea level.  It is especially evident and consistently a topic of conversation this time of year when heavy rains and the threat of hurricanes are the norm.

Every time we get a heavy rainstorm, there is some degree of flooding around the city. Certain neighborhoods are worse than others. Locals know which streets to take on a rainy day to stay on high ground.  August 11th of 2017 is remembered well by New Orleanians for a particularly bad flash flood. Heavy rains that day left many cars, homes, and businesses in ruin.

The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board (another hot topic this time of year) receives a lot of flak for the failures of the drainage system that day and their poor performance in general as a business entity. But believe it or not, the Sewerage and Water Board was once revered as a fine establishment responsible for progressive engineering feats.

Credit for this reputation should be due primarily to Albert Baldwin Wood, a Tulane grad, engineer, and life-long inventor.

Wood Screw Pump to the Rescue

The pumps are the lifeline of New Orleans during a flood. They are responsible for pumping out the water and restoring normal life during heavy rains. Among them, the most famous and useful pump is the Wood Screw Pump. No, it isn’t made of wood. Rather, it is named after its inventor, Albert Baldwin Wood. In fact, all of the pumps used in New Orleans today were designed by Wood. That was 1915.

It was after the invention of the Wood Screw Pump that the city could expand because the “backswamps” had been drained out. The backswamp was the area of town now known as Gentilly, Lakeview, and City Park.  In addition to urban development, draining the swamp had other benefits. The mosquitoes and diseases were also gone with the stagnant flood water, and the mortality rate fell. The pumps also improved the quality of New Orleans’ water supply.

The Wood Screw Pump is still in action at the Pumping Station #1
CREDIT LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON / WWNO

The Side Effect

Despite the benefits that the pumps brought to the city, there was also a downside. Because the city’s swamps had been drained, it made the ground subside, and parts of the city went 10 feet below sea level. This made them even more vulnerable to rainfall and rising water, and also dependent on the pumps, outfall canals, and levees.

The Wood Screw Pump is one of the best ever made. During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the original Wood Screw Pump consistently did its job, while the newer pumps broke down quickly.

Innovation is Needed

With an ever evolving landscape and climate, the old Wood Screw pumps don’t make the cut anymore. The early 20th-century drainage system we still have in place today can handle about ½” of rain water per hour. On August 11th, 2017, we saw nearly 9 inches of rainwater get dumped on the city in less than 3 hours.  While the pumps are still doing their job 100 years later (thank goodness!), early 20th-century mechanisms in this new age of technology are not what a city should depend on. Innovation is needed.

Wood was an avid fisherman and sailor who succumbed to a heart attack aboard his yacht, the Nydia, in 1956. New Orleans needs to find another Wood.