With this year’s six-month hurricane season just days old, the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board is seeking to regain the public trust that has been shaken over the past year with a handful of new initiatives and a pledge for better communication with the public before, during and after storms.
The new proposals, officials said Monday, include better outreach through both traditional and social media and contracting with a meteorologist during hurricane season to provide more detailed forecasts on where the heaviest rainfall may occur.
The utility said it also plans to study the street flooding that occurred May 18 as part of an ongoing effort to determine why Mid-City and Treme have seen so much flooding from storms over the past year.
Further, it said, it will be rolling out plans in coming weeks to deal with the widespread billing mistakes that have plagued customers and to pick up the pace of hiring new workers. It has hundreds of vacant positions.
The new measures were announced Monday as officials led media members on a tour of the agency’s Carrollton water plant, which houses the turbines that power the system.
Four of the five turbines, some a century old, are now working, and the fifth is expected to be brought online in the next month or two.
Along with generators the utility brought in after last summer’s repeated flooding, the turbines can now generate more power than is needed to run all of the system's drainage pumps at full capacity.
Of the S&WB’s 120 pumps, 115 are currently operational.
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Acting Executive Director Jade Brown Russell said a big change for the S&WB this year will be the hiring of a meteorologist over the next few months. The idea is to have more detailed real-time information to let the utility's pump and turbine workers know when and where to expect heavy rainfall so they can be ready, Russell said.
“It’ll provide our operations team and our pumping stations with greater specificity of when and where significant rainfall will be expected,” Russell said. “We have to put ourselves in a position where we’re giving our citizens enough time to respond to rainfall and provide them with more information on a real-time basis.”
The S&WB also plans to use social media more aggressively in future storms to let residents know when to prepare for heavy rainfall that could lead to flooding.
The agency has been actively using its Twitter account, @SWBNewOrleans, in recent weeks. It also has been posting updates on Instagram with the same account name.
A contractor will perform an analysis of the most recent flooding to give the utility a better sense of what happened during the mid-May storm, said Bob Turner, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East’s director of engineering and operations, who has been assisting the S&WB since last summer.
The contractor's report will focus on the recent flood since an analysis was already conducted on the larger Aug. 5 storm, he said.
In the longer term, the S&WB is going to have to grapple with how to power its system in coming decades.
The agency has been talking with Entergy New Orleans about moving away from producing its own power and instead purchasing power from the electric company, Interim Operations Manager Joe Sensebe said.
That proposal has been kicked around for years, since it would take the burden and cost of generating electricity off of the S&WB. It got renewed attention from Mayor Mitch Landrieu after last summer's flooding, and it has since been endorsed by new Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
The costs associated with such a move are not yet clear. The city spent almost $57 million repairing turbines and buying additional power equipment between the Aug. 5 flood and April.
Transitioning to Entergy power likely would take between 15 and 20 years, in part because pumps and other equipment that use the archaic power standard produced by most of the S&WB’s turbines would have to be taken offline and retrofitted one by one, Sensebe said.
The change would also require moving from typical power lines to transmission lines, he said.
Entergy officials said in a statement that their company and the S&WB “continue to discuss the long-term needs for the Sewerage & Water Board and possible solutions to address those needs.”