If the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board's (S&WB) new executive director, Ghassan Korban, has gotten a glimpse of the systemic dysfunction in that agency since he started work in September, he got a full-on overdose after the city's most recent boil-water order Nov. 17. New Orleans City Council members demanded explanations, and Korban appeared before them Dec. 3 with an embarrassing confession: Two employees who were supposed to be in charge that morning "went AWOL."
WWL-TV reported shortly after the boil-water event that only one employee was working to bring a failed pump online, a charge that one S&WB official denied. Turned out the station was right. Other employees were there; they just weren't doing their jobs.
"They were present and they were missing in action, not to be found," Korban told the council. "They knew exactly what their jobs were, they knew how to do it, and they opted not to do it." He added, vaguely, that the employees "bailed."
Council members were appropriately nonplussed. "They bailed…," said District B Councilman Jay Banks. "Does that mean they were ghosting and not on the premises when they were supposed to be? When the [pump] went off, did they freak out and say, 'This is too much for me to handle' and then run out? Were they sick in the bathroom? Where were they?"
Officials on Monday revealed more mishaps that contributed to New Orleans' boil-water advisory last month, including employees who apparently …
Korban didn't have the answers, though the S&WB later said one of the AWOL employees had resigned and another had been suspended.
In a perfect storm of incompetence, Entergy New Orleans shared a big part of the blame. The local electrical utility lost power near the Carrollton Water Plant when a vehicle crashed into a power pole in the middle of the night. That's not Entergy's fault — but the utility failed to notify S&WB for four hours after it had to shut off power to the area to make things right.
Astonishingly, Entergy officials said giving S&WB notice of the power outage was never part of their protocol — even though residential customers routinely get text messages about outages in their areas.
We all know about the city's century-old sewerage, drainage and water infrastructure and the S&WB's legendary billing problems. What we learned on Dec. 3 is that people in key positions at the agency during emergency situations — the S&WB's 911 operators and first responders, if you will — can't be counted on in a crisis. Imagine if the city's REAL 911 operators and first responders "bailed" when they were needed most.
S&WB's nonresponse to the events of Nov. 17, and the fact that Entergy had no plan in place to notify S&WB when electrical power was cut off, should serve as a wake-up call to Korban and to Entergy's new CEO David Ellis. Both men have a lot of heavy lifting to do to get their respective agencies to basic competence — much less to restore public confidence. This mess is also a signal to City Council members, who regulate both entities, that they likewise have their work cut out for them.