Flooding New Orleans

Rain clouds gather over the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board facility, where turbines that power pumps have failed, in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017. Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency in New Orleans on Thursday as the city’s malfunctioning water-pumping system left some neighborhoods at greater risk of foul-weather flooding. The city scrambled to repair fire-damaged equipment at a power plant and shore up its drainage system, less than a week after a flash flood from torrential rain overwhelmed the city’s pumping system and inundated many neighborhoods.

Gerald Herbert

As New Orleans residents continue to fret about the risk of facing the height of hurricane season with a severely compromised drainage system, Mayor Mitch Landrieu acknowledged Sunday that the system has "never been fully operational."

Moreover, it could take as long as two weeks to "stabilize" the crippled system with emergency generators and other fixes, Landrieu said at a morning news conference, making large swaths of the city even "more vulnerable" than usual to a heavy rain or tropical storm.

Landrieu said his assessment was based in part on a review of logs released Friday that seemed to reveal previously unacknowledged gaps in the operation of New Orleans' complex pumping system on Aug. 5, when water filled the streets in several east bank neighborhoods, damaging cars, residences and businesses.

Among other things, the logs revealed that some pumps in inundated areas were not turned on for hours after the flooding began — a problem that was not among those admitted by Sewerage & Water Board officials at a City Council meeting Tuesday. At that meeting, officials conceded for the first time that the drainage system operated well below its capacity during the Aug. 5 flood because of out-of-service pumps and power shortages.

Landrieu said the logs also showed that one of the problems plaguing Lakeview that day was that an employee was at another pumping station when the water began to rise and because of the flooding could not get to the inundated neighborhood in time to flip the switch.

"I cannot make good decisions unless I have information that I can trust," a visibly agitated Landrieu said Sunday. "It’s been a very frustrating and angering situation for us, and of course I know for all of the people of New Orleans."

At a news conference a day earlier, Landrieu had declined to discuss the logs from the pumping stations, saying he would wait for the results of an "after-action report" before making judgments. It was not clear what prompted his change of heart.

On Sunday, Landrieu said he now believes that practically every facet of the Sewerage & Water Board’s complex pumping system was in some way deficient or compromised, based on a preliminary review of how power is generated, how well the pumps are working and how much manpower is needed to keep the system operating at full capacity.

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The mayor also reiterated that the city has brought in additional workers and equipment "to fix what’s broken." The temporary hires include contractors, investigators and technical experts.

A total of 103 of the city's 120 pumps are now operational, the mayor said. He has tapped five contractors to assess the remaining 17 for emergency repairs.

According to the S&WB, 11 of the 17 damaged pumps would be used to deal with storm water.

But Landrieu acknowledged there could be other issues that would diminish the capacity of some of the 103 pumps that are considered to be in working order. To that end, third-party inspectors will be scrutinizing the “true capacity” of those pumps, he said.

As of Sunday, two of the S&WB's five turbines — the equipment used to power the pumps — are operational, he said.

To better power the pumps in the interim, 22 emergency generators have arrived and four more are coming, Landrieu said. In addition to providing back-up power to the central plant, generators will also be placed at individual pumping stations "for redundancy," he said.

But until all the generators are set up or more of the turbines are online, which could take several weeks, New Orleans remains “at risk,” Landrieu said.

"We are as ready as we can be for hurricane season, but for the next 14 days, we are more vulnerable,” Landrieu said. "We have what we need in the event of a typical rainfall, but we do not have what we need in the event of a deluge."

Among other problems, Landrieu said, the logs released Friday highlighted longstanding manpower issues that apparently led to the reliance on one employee to turn on pumps at two widely separated stations. In the short run, he said, the contractors hired to make repairs will also provide temporary pump operators.

Landrieu could not say Sunday how many positions are unfilled at the agency. He said that analysis would be part of the after-action report a third party will perform. A solicitation for a firm to prepare such a report is scheduled to go out by Monday.

The mayor warned the system upgrades and assessments will come at a hefty price to the city. The 26 emergency generators alone are slated to cost about $7 million, he said — a bill that will likely delay previously approved capital projects.

"For everything we do, there’s always a cost, there’s always a sacrifice, and somebody always has to pay," Landrieu said. "We’re in a fix right now and we’re going to get out of it. And we’re going to do it in a thoughtful and a compelling and a transparent way."

Landrieu said he will continue to press for accountability for past mistakes in coming months, but only after the system has been secured.

In the meantime, he took responsibility for system failures on multiple levels, ranging from clogged catch basins to power outages and unmanned pumps.

"These vulnerabilities are unacceptable, especially in the height of hurricane season," Landrieu added. "So let me be clear: The buck ultimately stops with me. I own it, I accept it, and I am taking responsibility to fix it."

He said again he will not make any long-term commitments that would bind the hands of the mayor who will succeed him in May. 

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.