Key elements of the east bank’s hurricane defense systems were put through their paces Wednesday as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the east bank Flood Protection Authority prepared for the first hurricane season in which the 7-year-old local agency will be in the driver’s seat.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East will be in charge this year of operating the gates and structures that play a key role in keeping storm surge out of the east banks of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes — a significant milestone toward completion of the system.
That fact gave this week’s inspections added weight for the local officials, even though they say their crews are ready and trained and will still have guidance from the Corps.
“Certainly when the time comes and they hand you the keys, you do have that sense that this is really serious,” Flood Protection Authority Executive Director Bob Turner said.
Officials toured and tested the interim pumps on the New Orleans-area drainage canals and the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier on Wednesday and planned to do a similar inspection Thursday of the West Closure Complex on the Harvey Canal and Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the largest pumping station in the world.
Those structures, along with the Seabrook Floodgate Complex on the Industrial Canal, play a pivotal role in blocking surge and pumping water out of the New Orleans area’s drainage system in the event of a storm.
Flood Protection Authority crews have been training for the transfer of authority for a year, including working alongside the Corps during the last hurricane season. Corps officials will continue to aid the flood protection effort this year as well.
“We have executed a very thorough training process to make sure the transition from Corps to the nonfederal sponsors is absolutely seamless,” said Col. Richard Hansen, commander of the Corps’ New Orleans district.
Wednesday’s tests were part of a regular series of inspections and drills run to ensure the system is working as expected. The key elements of the flood reduction system are typically tested once a month, though that will be stepped up to twice a month during hurricane season.
Should a storm appear in the Gulf of Mexico, the Flood Protection Authority has a team of six people who will start working 96 hours before it could hit the area to ready the gates and structures. That timing is designed in part to give vessels in the navigable waterways time to evacuate before the authority begins closing the gates.
That evacuation, overseen by the Coast Guard, is necessary to ensure that boats do not become hazards to the area’s floodwalls during a storm.
The most time-consuming part of readying the system is inspecting and floating a concrete barge so it can be positioned and sunk into place to block off a channel in the Lake Borgne barrier. That process typically takes six to eight hours.
Once all the gates in the surge barrier are closed, officials will allow the area behind the barrier, which is used as a basin to collect storm water, to drain into Lake Pontchartrain to maximize the amount of surge the system can handle, Turner said. That basin will hold rainwater, water from the interior drainage system and water that overtops the surge barrier, he said.
Once the barge gate is in place, the rest of the system can be closed fairly quickly, Turner said.
Turner said the flood authority’s workers are well-prepared for their new roles, and planning and training for the transition have been underway for a year. In addition, he noted, the authority has been involved in the process since the Corps began upgrading the area’s flood defenses after the failures in the system during Hurricane Katrina.
“We were involved in the actual design process from the very beginning,” Turner said. “We knew the inside and outside of the gates and how they worked as they were being built.”
Operating and maintaining the east bank system is expected to cost the flood authority between $3 million and $4 million a year, including money put away for future repairs, Turner said.
The pump stations — the first stop on Wednesday’s inspection tour — are the last major element of the system that is not completed. Interim pumps at the 17th Street, London Avenue and Orleans Avenue canals, which were installed in 2006 and bolstered with additional pumping capacity in 2009, will continue to operate this year to empty floodwater into Lake Pontchartrain.
Crews are constructing the buildings that will operate the gates, designed to keep water from the lake from flowing back into the drainage system. The permanent pump station at the Orleans Avenue Canal is expected to be completed by the end of 2015, with the other two stations due to be operating before the peak of the 2016 hurricane season. Those stations will be able to pump a combined 24,200 cubic feet of water per second, almost 46 percent more than the interim pumps they are replacing.
When complete, the new pumps will be turned over to the control of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board.
The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-West, responsible for the system on the West Bank, also is gearing up for hurricane season. It will have largely the same responsibilities this year as in previous years.
“The West Bank is better protected than it’s ever been in its history, and the various agencies involved in the operations and maintenance of the system are working together,” authority President Susan Maclay said.
Members of the east bank authority echoed that sentiment for the flood protection system in their area.
Officials on both banks, however, warned that the system is designed only to reduce the risk of flooding and that nothing can eliminate the dangers of a storm entirely. To that end, they urged residents to heed the calls of officials to evacuate in advance of a storm.
“To me, the weakest part of this system is the people who don’t go when they’re told to evacuate,” east bank authority President Tim Doody said.
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