Text messages exchanged between Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his chief of staff show Landrieu’s top advisors urged him to return to New Orleans the day after the August 5 flooding, instead of waiting until after he finished up events at a national security leadership conference at the Aspen Institute in Colorado.
Text messages and cell phone logs obtained by WWL-TV in response to a public records request, shed new light on what Landrieu knew about the flooding and when.
Against the advice of his top staff, Landrieu stayed in Aspen to speak at the home of financial analyst Leah Zell on a panel titled, “The Home Front: A Group Discussion About Domestic Politics” Sunday evening, August 6.
The day before, rain started falling at 1 p.m., and low-lying areas of the city started filling up with water when pumps maintained by the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board had difficulty powering up.
By 4 p.m., the rain poured down and 911 calls about the flooding started pouring in to the city’s emergency agencies.
Screen shots of text messages from Landrieu’s two cell phones show the mayor first asked his Chief of Staff, Brooke Smith, about the flooding at 5:28 pm Central.
“Is all ok?” Landrieu texted to Smith.
She replied, “Lots of rain and street flooding at the moment. Am on call with [Emergency Operations Center] and comms. Will update shortly.”
Ten minutes later, Jefferson Parish Council Member Chris Roberts texted Landrieu, “Not sure how bad water situation is by you guys but all of our fire departments have boats. If you guys need assistance just let us know.”
Landrieu forwarded that text to New Orleans Homeland Security Director Aaron Miller adding, “From jeff parish. What’s up.”
Miller replied, “Received. A rain band has stalled out. Causing excessive street flooding no reports of emergency rescues needed.”
But the first calls to 911 came in at 3:17 p.m. In some of those calls, residents simply reported the flooding and questioned whether the drainage pumps were on and working, but in others, callers desperately asked for help getting out of cars stuck in the flash flood begged for assistance as water poured into their homes and businesses.
Images of residents slogging through flood water consumed local newscasts in New Orleans at 6 p.m.
An hour later, Governor John Bel Edwards texted Landrieu, “Mayor: I’m in Aspen at [Democratic Governors Association] meeting. You need any help with rain/flooding in Nola”.
Landrieu responded, “We are in touch with your team and will make requests as needed. We are good at the moment. I am in Aspen as well at Aspen Institute. I have been in touch with my team. But I think we are ok.”
An hour later, 8:12 p.m., Landrieu forwarded the governor's question to his chief of staff.
“From gov. Is all ok. Are we ok... Or do we need help,” he wrote.
Smith responded, “Over 40 reported street flooding incidents. All underpasses flooded. Aaron, [Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Cedric Grant] will do 5/6 newscasts 4-6 inches of rain in parts of the city in an hour. Pumps are working but can’t keep up.”
She texted again, “No deaths or significant injuries.”
But by late Saturday night, Landrieu’s top advisors were urging him to get on a plane to New Orleans the next morning.
Brooke Smith texted Landrieu, “We think you should take the 8:15 a.m. flight via Denver back to MSY tomorrow. Planning an afternoon press avail.”
What happened next is unclear. The cell phone logs provided in response to the public records request by City Hall are incomplete.
“I don't know if there was any other communication between them. I know there was a lot of communication between that time between our chief of staff and Mr. Grant and the rest of our team on the capacity of our system and what we were seeing,” said Landrieu’s Press Secretary Tyronne Walker.
Landrieu was scheduled to speak at the Zell mansion Sunday night.
Just before midnight, Smith texted Landrieu, “For now we will work on getting you back as early as possible on Monday if you are in agreement. If things worsen we’ll regroup. Thanks.”
“He regrets not coming back immediately. That's out of his own mouth. We don't have to add or subtract from that,” Walker said.
On August 6 at 9:38 a.m., the mayor texted his chief of staff "How r we doing". She replied, "We are doing well."
But a few hours later, Smith once again recommended Landrieu take an earlier flight.
Travel records show he was originally scheduled to leave Aspen Monday afternoon, but Landrieu ended up changing his flight, arriving back in New Orleans at 1:30 pm on August 7.
The text messages also show Landrieu and Edwards weren't the only ones out of town. Former Public Works Director Mark Jernigan, who would later resign at the urging of Landrieu, was on vacation in Dauphin Island, Alabama. Jernigan texted Grant that he planned to return Sunday night.
On Monday, Grant texted Jernigan again asking where he was, saying, “I got an inquiry from the second floor”. The second floor is the location of the mayor's office at City Hall.
As interesting as what was contained in the text exchanges is what wasn’t. There was no direct communication between Landrieu and Grant, who held a dual position as the Executive Director of the Sewerage & Water Board, responsible for city drainage, and Landrieu’s Deputy Mayor over capital projects.
Walker said city staffers all take on different roles in a given incident, and one point person will handle communication with the mayor.
WWL-TV has also requested the text messages exchanged between leaders of the Sewerage & Water Board, and while the board has provided the cell phone logs, their attorney maintains the cell phone company will not provide them with the text messages without a subpoena or a court order.