The Sewerage & Water Board was incapable of dealing with the pace of a series of crises that culminated in breakdowns in pumping and power equipment as well as with staffing shortages that may have exacerbated the Aug. 5 flood in New Orleans, an agency official said Monday.
The series of failures at pumping stations and the plant that powers them came too quickly in recent months for officials to handle, Deputy Director Bob Miller said at a meeting of the board’s Finance Committee, adding to the perception of an agency in disarray.
The city — which estimates efforts to fix and shore up the system will cost $35 million — has reached out to a variety of outside groups for assistance in the aftermath of the flooding in Mid-City, Lakeview and other areas of the city.
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The flooding may have been made worse because nearly a dozen major drainage pumps were broken and the S&WB was down to just a single generator that could directly power the remaining pumps. In some cases, pumps weren’t turned on until hours after the flooding began, according to agency logs.
FEMA is sending an official to the city to assist in planning for how to cope with storms until the drainage system is back up and running at full capacity, something that may take weeks. Meanwhile, officials have accelerated the process of fixing the broken elements of the system and identifying what else may be vulnerable.
Among the cost estimates so far are $7 million the S&WB spent on emergency generators for the pumping stations and another $15 million it will spend on two large generators to back up the main power plant, WWL-TV reported Monday.
The S&WB has about $85.3 million available in its reserve funds to pay for the emergency repairs, although the drainage system — which is funded through property taxes and has the least money available of the agency’s three arms — will have to borrow from the water and sewer systems to do so.
Using that money will leave the agency with 90 days of cash on hand, the minimum amount required by bond rating agencies.
“My question is: If you had that money available, why didn’t we spend it in July?” Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who serves as president of the board, asked at the committee meeting.
“It’s my understanding that we were severely limited in our capacity to spend money due to how thinly spread our management, supervisory and maintenance teams were in dealing with these crises as they came up quickly,” Miller said.
At a separate committee meeting, staff members went over the agency’s ongoing manpower shortage. Sharon Judkins, a deputy director, said the board had 290 vacancies at the end of July, blaming problems in hiring on cumbersome civil service rules, relatively low pay and a rule that employees must live within Orleans Parish.
Kimberly Johnson, another deputy director, said 16 employees already have hit the yearly maximum of 750 overtime hours, though she said overtime overall is expected to decline this year as the agency hands more work off to contractors the mayor has said are or will be hired to work on fixing the system.
She said the agency’s backlog of work orders has climbed 11 percent since the start of the year and 50 percent since the beginning of 2016. Most of that work involves repairing leaky pipes, she said.
The board has been wrestling with a manpower issue for months, if not years, and it was unclear how much that may have contributed to the crisis that swamped the drainage system Aug. 5. But Landrieu pressed staff members to speed up the process of clearing bottlenecks in the hiring process.
“If there is anything that we can make go forward faster, given our circumstances, we should think about doing that,” he said.
Newly released logs suggest that some of the city's operable drainage pumps sat idle for hou…
The S&WB is contracting with the firm CH2M to provide project management for repairs to the turbines and pumps.
Under another contract, Veolia Water, which already has a water quality contract with the S&WB, will analyze the working pumps and turbine to determine whether they’re up to full capacity and identify any problems that may crop up going forward.
Both those contracts are being issued under an emergency declaration, meaning they did not have to go through the formal bid process, and their details are still being negotiated, Landrieu spokesman Tyronne Walker said.
The city is also expected to seek bids for an "after-action report" looking at exactly what capacity the system had during the Aug. 5 flood and previous flooding on July 22. That report is expected to include information about how a fully functioning system would have been able to handle the rainfall on those two days.
At the same time, the city is reaching out nationally for help.
Landrieu has asked for technical assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is sending a team to help identify areas where it can help, Walker said.
The administration is also working with other state and federal agencies that can assist with staff members, physical resources like generators or potential funding to deal with the crisis, Walker said.
The city is also looking at a broader approach for how it will handle the transition at the SW&B, now that its top officials have been ousted in the wake of the flooding. Executive Director Cedric Grant and General Superintendent Joe Becker both resigned last week at Landrieu’s request.
Miller will also be leaving the agency, though in his case it’s to take a job with the city of Jackson, Mississippi. Miller accepted that job on the Friday before the flood, and his departure is not related to the current turmoil at the S&WB.
With all hands dealing with the flooding on Aug. 5, a Saturday, Miller did not actually inform his bosses that he had taken a new job until Tuesday. Landrieu did not know he would no longer be at the agency when he suggested Tuesday afternoon that Miller would be a good interim choice to lead the S&WB.
Landrieu has reached out to Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba to see if Miller can stay on at the S&WB through the end of October to help with the transition.
The administration had said it would seek a private company to temporarily take over the agency to “stabilize” it, though Landrieu has said the idea of permanent privatization is not on the table. On Monday, Walker said the administration may try to bring in temporary managers, rather than a private company, to run the company during the transition.
“Any type of contract or agreement we confect around temporary management will be specific about stabilizing (the S&WB), enhancing the team that’s there and making sure that team would give the organization and the board the space it needs in order to do a serious and thorough national search” for new leadership, Walker said.