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Floodgate at Lakefront Airport remains open for Hurricane Ida, raising questions

The airport entrance floodgate, known as L-18, will not be replaced before Ida arrives.

NEW ORLEANS — Hurricane Ida’s threat has exposed a strange issue at the New Orleans Lakefront Airport, where a main floodgate is being left open because it’s no longer necessary to protect the city.

The floodgate on Stars and Stripes Boulevard at the entrance to the historic municipal airport was removed for sandblasting and maintenance about a week ago, along with five other floodgates. The other five were being installed and closed Saturday, including one at Downman Road just a few feet away.

But the airport entrance floodgate, known as L-18, will was not going to be replaced before Ida arrives.

That decision raises questions about the need for the gate to exist at all.

It is not part of the $14.5 billion federal floodwall and levee improvement project that followed Hurricane Katrina. When the Flood Authority has closed the gate during major storms in the past, it has caused the floodwaters from Lake Pontchartrain to remain trapped on the airport property, angering airport officials and business owners, who have sued the airport authority over millions of dollars in damages.

More significantly, days of flooding on the tarmac and in the adjacent buildings could keep the airport from serving as the designated air evacuation point for area hospitals.

After Hurricane Isaac in 2012, a valve at the gate was kept closed, preventing floodwaters from draining back into the lake for days.

Wilma Heaton works for the Flood Protection Authority and also is the chairwoman of the Lakefront Management Authority that manages areas outside the protection system. She is leading an effort to get $200 million in federal aid to match $75 million committed by the flood authority to build a flood protection system specifically for the airport.

"For years we've asked (for the federal funding)," she said. "Obviously, we've failed miserably, and when a storm comes we realize the impact, but we never stop, 24/7 and 365 days a year, we keep pleading."

She said a new floodwall system for the airport would be worth the cost given that taxpayers have already paid for $68 million in repairs and upgrades at the airport after Hurricane Katrina alone, including $19 million the restoration of the terminal building, the last art deco airport in the country.

But more than protecting the investment in architecture and business assets, Heaton said the need for medical evacuation services is paramount. She said more than 2,000 patients were airlifted out after Hurricane Katrina and more lives could have been saved if the airport had been protected from flooding.

"If we have to shut down we can't fly people out who are in ICU," Heaton said. "You can't mix commercial passengers with ICU patients. Belle Chasse is military, Armstrong (International Airport) is commercial and we are medical evac. So, when you have an airport of this significant, of life and death, the least we can ask for is to protect it so we can operate."

At a news conference Friday, Flood Protection Authority East Regional Director Kelli Chandler announced the L-18 gate opening would be closed with sandbags. But she later backtracked, telling WWL-TV the gate is redundant and does not need to be closed to protect the neighborhoods across Hayne Boulevard from the airport.

That was welcome news to airport officials, including airport manager Chris Henderson who emailed airport tenants to say he had received “good news” that the gate would remain open. They hope that will allow water to drain back into the lake near the airport hangars, offices and historic art deco terminal building.

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