Announcing the selection of Ghassan Korban as director of the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board in July, Mayor LaToya Cantrell explained “what it boiled down to.”
Given the frequency with which citizens here are required to boil water lest they ingest some noxious foreign body, that seemed an unfortunate choice of words. Perhaps it was a Freudian slip.
What the S&WB search boiled down to was that Korban had spent seven years in charge of Milwaukee's Department of Public Works, and was the most likely candidate to let New Orleans residents put away their kettles.
The S&WB had rubbed along with a succession of interim directors since Cedric Grant quit 11 months earlier under a cloud. That was just after the heavens opened, catching the S&WB with its pumps down and submerging much of the city. Grant and his aides spent a couple of days telling the public that all the pumps had been in good working order, which would have been cold comfort, if true. It would have presaged a major flood after every down downpour.
But it was a long way from true, and after a series of inaccurate statements were taken back, it was clear that heads had to roll. Grant, after conceding the pumping station was not up to snuff, announced he would retire, noting, in a letter to then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu, that he had “served the City of New Orleans honorably,” an opinion that would have carried more weight coming from someone else.
If the Grant administration lacked candor, Korban evidently struck City Council members as a breath of fresh air when he appeared before them last week to explain the latest boil-water advisory. Several of them praised the “transparency” with which he acknowledged the derelictions of two of his “high level” employees.
There may not be many cities where a car ramming an electricity pole could result in water pressure plummeting to an unsafe level, but that is what happened here. Put the utility company Entergy and the S&WB together, and chaos will loom. Entergy has had its share of recent woes too, CEO Charles Rice having been demoted when it turned out that citizens who jammed council hearings in support of a new power station were in fact company hirelings.
The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board is tens of millions of dollars short of the funds it needs to complete the projects it has schedule…
It was around midnight in November when some errant motorist ran into a pole supporting lines on which an S&WB pumping station depends for much of its power. But nobody at Entergy thought to alert the S&WB until more than four hours later. When an attempt to operate with back-up power failed, water pressure dropped at around 6:30 a.m.
But the two employees with the requisite expertise to keep the pumps running “were missing in action and could not be found,” Korban told the council.” The entire east bank of Orleans Parish got a boil-water advisory, the city's second within a month.
Council members were no doubt right to laud Korban for his frankness, and personnel matters always command a certain amount of confidentiality. But the pronouncements they called transparent were so delphic that they must have left the entire town thirsting for more.
The two culprits “did not necessarily leave, but they were not available,” Korban said. “They did not freak out; they opted not to be engaged,” he added when pressed. He also described them as “not responsive.” They “bailed” and “didn't do their job.”
Some 10 employees were on duty at the pumping station that night, but evidently only these two had the skills and training that might have averted disaster. Since they were also “high level,” they must have earned management's trust earlier. What could have made such valued staffers suddenly behave irresponsibly is therefore a mystery. The term “not responsive” is generally applied to the comatose. We can only guess, but in New Orleans drink or drugs are always a possible factor.
Whatever the reason for the debacle, both our guys were immediately suspended without pay for behavior that was presumably out of character and bound to make the blood boil.