Automobile

New Orleans Let Cars Park on ‘Neutral Ground’ during Hurricane Ida

  • The city of New Orleans suspended a ban on parking on “neutral ground,” a term New Orleanians use to refer to grassy medians, during Hurricane Ida.
  • The city sometimes lifts the parking ban during heavy rain events to help drivers keep their cars safe from potential floods.
  • It’s never safe to drive through flood waters. Many cars will stall in six inches of water or less and can be carried away by two feet of water.

    As New Orleans prepared for Hurricane Ida, which was a Category 4 storm when it made landfall in Louisiana on Sunday before being downgraded to a tropical storm, city officials made one surprising move: They lifted a parking ban that usually makes it illegal for drivers to park on grassy medians, known as “neutral ground” in New Orleans. The medians are raised by several inches compared to the street, so parking there pre-emptively gives vehicle owners some protection against flood damage. Hurricanes and the flooding they cause can damage huge numbers of cars; in 2018, flooding from Hurricane Harvey may have destroyed as many as a million cars in the Houston area.

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    This wasn’t the first time the New Orleans city government had suspended the neutral-ground parking ban. It’s a technique employed regularly to limit damage from flooding in the city, which sits around eight feet below sea level. But even in emergencies, it’s still not a parking free-for-all (at least according to the authorities). Drivers are allowed to park cars on neutral ground while the ban is lifted, but they still can’t park in ways that would impede the flow of traffic, block intersections, or block the travel of streetcars, which in some places run through the middle of the grassy dividers.

    Some people in other flood-prone cities are calling on their governments to adopt a similar strategy during heavy rains. In Houston, which has had seven flooding events since 2014, the streets are designed to channel water during heavy rain, which can make street-parked cars vulnerable to damage. Drivers there may find themselves driving or pushing their cars onto medians or raised lawns for lack of better options once flood waters start rising, but it’s not currently an officially sanctioned practice.

    Whether your municipal government allows you to park your car out of harm’s way pre-emptively or not, it’s never safe to drive your car through flood waters. Many cars can stall in as little as six inches of water, float in a foot of water, or be carried away by two feet of water. Flood water may carry debris (including snakes, according to the National Weather Service) that can damage cars or injure people. And even shallow running water can sweep you off your feet. It may be hard—and expensive—but if you discover too late that your car is parked in the way of a flood, it’s best to leave it be. If you’re driving and come across flood water, turn around and head to higher ground. And if flood waters begin to rise around your car, abandon the car and seek safety.

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