As the storm bore down on the 19½-foot levee separating Michael Parquet from the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, he looked out the back of a NASA building at a tree pushed horizontal by the wind.
The tree was holding on, and somehow, so were its leaves.
Parquet knew he and the rest of the skeleton crew holed up inside the vast Michoud Assembly Facility in eastern New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina would have to cling on, too.
On Thursday, NASA celebrated Parquet and the 37 others who kept the complex — where the space shuttle’s giant external tanks were fastened together — safe during Katrina. The members of what NASA called its “ride-out crew” kept Michoud’s pumps running during the storm — and ensured a safe haven for steady federal jobs in the months that followed.
Most employees of NASA and contractor Lockheed Martin left as Katrina bore down on the region 10 years ago. But a handful stayed behind to secure the site and operate four giant pumps, each capable of sucking 60,000 gallons of water per minute off Michoud’s 832 acres.
“We had to stay because we’ve always stayed,” said Malcolm Wood, 66, who at the time was director of facilities for Lockheed Martin. “We just thought it was another storm.”
But even though Michoud is protected from water by the levee to the south and an elevated rail right-of-way to the north, this storm was far from ordinary. The skies dumped 14 inches of rain onto the grounds, according to a 2006 Times-Picayune article, and 167 mph winds broke a rooftop gauge.
Several members of the crew stayed in the pump house for as long as they could to try to keep it running during the storm, pouring gasoline into generators and minding the machines.
Their mantra, Wood said, was the same as that uttered by Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz during the movie of the same name: “Failure is not an option.”
If the levees had been topped or the pumps had stopped working, the space shuttle — at the time still ferrying parts to expand the International Space Station — could have been dealt a devastating blow.
Finally, about 4 a.m. on Aug. 29, the pump crew was forced back into the safety of Building 320, a structure that served as the facility’s emergency operations center.
That building was where Parquet and others peered south, watching and worrying about whether the pumps would hold out. Through video camera feeds, they watched the devastation as it unfolded — until the cameras were destroyed. The next day, employees finally were able to venture over to the pump house to find that the pumps had held.
Engineers later calculated that the pumps had sucked a combined 1 billion gallons of water out of the site.
Unlike other levees around the city, Michoud’s held, narrowly surviving a potentially devastating barge hit.
Almost all of the rest of New Orleans East was swamped under several feet of water. Michoud suffered about $120 million in damage to its buildings, much of it from wind, but it stayed relatively dry.
The facility became a safe haven for three platoons of Marines who slept there at night and ventured into the city by day to conduct rescue operations.
For the next month or so, the members of the ride-out crew who stayed had a strange, isolated window onto what remained of the city. They were safe, but from the top of the facility’s buildings, some of them could see the ruined remains of their neighborhoods.
At the time Katrina hit, Michoud had roughly 2,000 employees. About 600 of them lost their homes, but thanks to the efforts of the ride-out crew and the largesse of the federal government, they still had jobs.
These days, there are about 1,220 Michoud employees living in the greater New Orleans area. Four additional massive pumps have been installed to help keep the facility dry.
As NASA struggles to secure funding for the shuttle replacement whose tanks are slated to be welded together at the New Orleans facility, there is some question as to what its future holds.
But at the ceremony honoring the ride-out crew on Thursday, there was no question about its past. A plaque inscribed with the name of every member of the ride-out crew was unveiled.
Pipefitter Greg Menesses recalled how he rode out the storm on his roof in Chalmette, watching as the water wrecked his home in 15 minutes.
By the third week of September, he had returned to Michoud. He slept at a friend’s house in Slidell. He would have kept drawing a paycheck even if he had stayed away. But working at Michoud, he said, helped him get to “some kind of normal.”