As the rain fell on Aug. 5 and floodwaters began to rise, the city’s Emergency Operations Center emailed officials at the Sewerage & Water Board with a simple and urgent question: Is the drainage system working?
“All pumps operating,” came the reply from the board’s staff, according to a log of events obtained by The New Orleans Advocate through a public-records request.
That assertion then got relayed to the public. Officials at the utility and City Hall would continue to insist — throughout the storm and for more than a day afterward — that all the pumps were on, even as residents began to grow suspicious, with many homes and businesses taking on water.
Cedric Grant, the water board’s executive director, announced that the pumps were working at full capacity.
Finally, on Sunday night, long after the water had receded, the S&WB’s general superintendent, Joe Becker, got an email from one of his subordinates: In fact, 15 of the city’s 120 pumps had not been operating at all during the storm the day before.
Becker sent a note back saying he needed to know exactly which pumps were operating during the storm and which were not.
Speaking with reporters the next day, Becker acknowledged that some of the pumps had been down, but he continued to insist that it hadn’t made any difference, given the large amount of rain that had fallen in a short period of time.
A day later, City Council members at an emergency meeting began to pick that assertion apart. As Becker finally acknowledged, some of the inoperable pumps represented as much as a third of the capacity at critical pumping stations in the flooded Mid-City and Lakeview neighborhoods, raising questions about whether they might have made the difference between flooding and keeping water out of buildings. Also, the power plant that provides them with electricity had been short of several turbines, further crimping the system.
A review of more than 3,400 emails from mid-July through the aftermath of the Aug. 5 flood sheds some light on the communication gaps that allowed false information to reach the public.
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Internal communications suggest that top city officials, including Grant, had been clueless about how many pumps were offline in the days before the storm. But once the flooding hit, they were nevertheless quick to reassure the public and dismiss the significance of maintenance problems.
At the same time, officials had been aware weeks before the Aug. 5 deluge that malfunctioning turbines at the board's power plant might leave the city vulnerable, but they never warned the public. And they were tight-lipped about the plant's problems until drawn out by City Council members.
None of the emails contradict Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s assertion that he was in the dark about problems with both the turbines and pumps; his administration appears to have taken at face value the utility’s claims that everything was working fine.
In response to questions about the emails, Landrieu Communications Director Tyronne Walker reiterated that the mayor was concerned "he wasn't notified of the severity of the situation at S&WB."
"If he would have been properly notified, he would have acted as he has in the past when serious situations confront the city," Walker said in an email. He said officials now are waiting on an "after-action report" to determine just what happened.
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About 7:32 p.m. on Aug. 5, after the rain had ended, Hayne Rainey, the S&WB's intergovernmental relations manager, reached out to the utility's top officials asking for a second time whether there was any trouble with the city's pumps.
"Any pumping issues to report?" he asked.
The reply from Grant two minutes later was succinct.
"At Central Control every station is pumping," Grant replied.
In fact, Pump Station 12 — which serves Lakeview — would not be turned on for another hour and 15 minutes, possibly because there was no one staffing the station, according to a local engineer named Matt McBride who published an analysis of S&WB operations logs online. That would mean the station was idle for hours after the rain began.
The first time any mention of downed pumps appears in the emails was about 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 6, the day after the flood. Grant was due to make a presentation on the flooding for the City Council on Tuesday. Becker, his No. 2, was compiling information for him.
Vincent Fouchi, the agency’s chief of operations, sent Becker a note saying the agency had 15 pumps down for maintenance.
Becker shot back a question: “At the height of the rain Saturday, what pumps were not on at 1-7 and why not?” he asked, referring to pump stations west of the Industrial Canal on the east bank of the river. It's not clear whether that was the first time Becker had heard about the offline pumps.
At that point, none of the city officials communicating with the public were aware of the downed pumps. Landrieu and other city officials had reassured residents at a news conference that evening that the drainage system was operating as intended.
Rainey had already drafted a report for the City Council saying the pumps had been “fully manned and operational.”
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The next day, now aware that some of the city’s 120 pumps had in fact been down during the storm, Becker led reporters on a tour of one of the pumping stations. He said — erroneously, it turned out — that seven pumps had been down during the worst of the rain, but he stressed that no drainage system in the world could have handled the Aug. 5 deluge without some flooding.
In an email afterward, Becker acknowledged to other utility officials that he had not been prepared for the questions coming from reporters. “They kept asking how many pumps and which pumps were out of service,” Becker wrote. “I told them that I had the list at my desk but I didn’t know the specific pumps off the top of my head. I told them it was about 7. The actual number is 8 drainage pumps.”
Grant replied, “Make the correction and tell them the locations. Also tell them how them being out of service related to providing the needed drainage operations.”
Becker apparently did not get around to making a widely disseminated correction or providing any further explanation to reporters before he and Grant appeared before the council on Tuesday.
It wasn’t until aggressive questioning by council members that the details finally came out.
In emails afterward, Becker referred to the meeting as a “witch hunt” and an “inquisition,” took umbrage at being accused of lying and said he had been told that “the decision to throw me under the bus was made before the meeting ever started.”
Mayor in the dark
Landrieu’s administration, meanwhile, appeared to be caught off guard by the revelation that some of the pumps had not been working.
On the Monday after the storm, while TV stations were reporting on Becker’s tour of the pumping station, Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni shot an email to water board officials asking for an explanation.
“They said 7 pump stations were not on,” Berni wrote. “Could that be the ones in NO East that were not supposed to be on?”
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It’s unclear whether Berni got a reply.
Neither the mayor nor Aaron Miller, director of the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, appears to have been copied on any of the emails among S&WB officials about inoperable pumps or turbines.
Grant himself had not been getting the regular reports that his agency produced after every rainstorm, providing a description of when various parts of the system were activated and detailing any problems that were encountered.
"Mr. Grant, see the attachment, this is generated after rain events, it is sent to operations administrators,” wrote Eric Labat, a power dispatcher who sends out those reports. “I would have thought that you would receive this after major events? I can send it directly if you like?”
“Send it to me directly, always,” Grant replied.
Grant was also not receiving alerts sent out to agency officials on specific reports of flooding based on calls to the New Orleans Police Department.
After S&WB Communications Director Lisa Martin forwarded him one of the alerts during a previous storm on July 22, Grant told her that he had not been getting them.
“I have to see how to get you on this,” said Martin, who also resigned after Landrieu said he wanted her replaced after the second flood. “It tells you every single flooding incident and how severe.”
While the drainage pumps themselves rarely made an appearance in the emails before Aug. 5, officials had repeatedly expressed grave concerns about the turbines that power them.
The S&WB uses five in-house turbines as the primary power source to run the pumps, backed up by power from Entergy. One of those turbines has been down for almost six years for a full refurbishment, and another had been undergoing repairs for months.
Then, after the July 22 flood, problems began cropping up with another turbine.
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Emails began to fly back and forth, with subject lines like “pushing the ragged edge even further,” discussing the “juggling” needed to keep power flowing to the system.
“This is enough power to continue potable water pumping operations, but we will not have sufficient power capacity to perform any drainage pumping based upon SWB-supplied power,” Becker wrote on July 28. “For the next several weeks, with the height of hurricane season approaching, we are going to be dependent upon Entergy power to operate our drainage system.”
While the power issues had been discussed at S&WB committee meetings, no one apparently notified Landrieu or the public. The logs that record activity at the pump stations indicate that power may have been rationed during the Aug. 5 flooding, potentially causing some pumps to remain idle.
The power issues were considered a paramount concern, with S&WB officials discussing various options including renting or buying generators to provide back-up power. But with a delivery date in the middle of August, the time it would take to pursue those options was eventually deemed to be too long to be of use.
Since the storm, the city and S&WB — tapping into resources from the state and elsewhere — have installed 16 generators and have others in reserve.