Archived Story

Remembering the 1978
New Orleans flood

Published 7:00pm Saturday, April 19, 2003

By By Terry Cassreino / assistant managing editor
April 13, 2003
As residents battled flash floods last week after severe storms pelted East Mississippi, my thoughts raced back to a similar event when I was a teen-ager almost 25 years ago.
I had just turned 17 two days before the Great Flood of May 3, 1978, hit my hometown of New Orleans. It's hard to believe it was that long ago. But it was. And that day was forever burned in my memory.
It was early on a Wednesday morning when a squall line collided with a stalled cold front over the city resulting in some of the heaviest and most persistent rain I've ever seen or experienced.
In about six hours, storms dumped 10 to 14 inches of rain on metropolitan New Orleans at the staggering rate of up to 2 inches an hour.
New Orleans, which is 5 feet to 6 feet below sea level in a bowl between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, couldn't handle it. Not that much rain and not in that short period of time.
By early afternoon, hundreds of homes in and around the city had as much as 4 feet of water that wouldn't drain for hours. The flood paralyzed the metropolitan area and caused more than $100 million in damage.
Motorists on flooded avenues unknowingly drove into major drainage canals camouflaged by overflowing water. Wooden coffins popped out of their ground-level tombs. Empty gasoline tanks at service stations floated away.
Indeed, the May 3 flood was so devastating that the National Weather Service office overseeing Southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Coast ranked it among the region's top 10 weather events of the 20th century.
For me, the day began unremarkably.
Heavy rains steadily fell and limited my visibility as I drove my brown, five-speed Ford Pinto the 15-minute trip from my home in East New Orleans to Jesuit High School in the Mid-City area.
I had a feeling then that the weather might cause some problems. But I didn't know the extent until lunch when I saw flood waters covering almost all of the streets surrounding the block that housed Jesuit High's four-story brick building.
I immediately panicked. I had parked my car behind the school on Banks Street, a four-lane road divided by a narrow neutral ground. I raced to the fourth floor of the school and peered out the window.
All I saw was the roof of my car and the wind-pushed waves of the murky brown flood waters lapping at the windows. Hours later, a friend and I braved chest-deep flood water and pulled the car onto the school's dry courtyard.
When I opened the door, flood water rushed out along with all the trash I had dumped in the back seat the past year. Among the trash: about 25 empty, plastic Neo-Synephrine bottles from my then-addiction to over-the-counter nasal sprays.
It was an embarrassing scene although no where near as horrible as the real losses thousands of other metropolitan New Orleans residents suffered from that flood or the many Mississippians who suffered from last week's flood.
Meridian lucked out last week. With successful planning, the city avoided disaster by widening and deepening its chief drainage canal, Sowashee Creek, during the late 1980s and early 1990s
New Orleans, which has a more complicated drainage system that has seen few improvements since 1978, hasn't been as fortunate. The city saw even more extensive flooding in October from Tropical Storm Isidore.
So while Meridian residents can breathe a sigh of relief, metropolitan New Orleans residents remain constantly on guard whenever it rains for the possibility of serious street and house flooding.
Maybe even a repeat of May 3.

Editor's Picks