The agency that oversees the hurricane flood protection system around New Orleans is set to take over operation of the pumping stations at the mouths of the three canals that carry stormwater from the east bank of Orleans Parish into Lake Pontchartrain.
The decision, if finalized, means the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, which faced withering criticism after summer thunderstorms flooded parts of the city, would not be responsible for key parts of the system intended to keep the city from flooding during tropical storms and hurricanes.
“There is no one else better able to do it,” said Joe Hassinger, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, the agency that will take over the pumps.
“These are complex structures and it’s critical that, when called on, they perform," he said.
The flood authority voted Wednesday to negotiate an agreement to take control of the three pumping stations and their floodgates, pending discussions with the S&WB and the city over who will pay for day-to-day operations and maintenance.
The flood authority estimates that will cost $4 million a year.
The three sets of pumping stations and floodgates, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are the last pieces of the $14.5 billion storm surge protection system authorized by Congress for the metropolitan area after Hurricane Katrina.
The pumps are located where the city’s three primary drainage canals — the Orleans Avenue Canal, the London Avenue Canal in Gentilly and the 17th Street Canal between Lakeview and Metairie — meet the lake.
After years of delays, the $693 million pump and gates project should be finished by the end of January, according to René Poché, a spokesman for the corps. It will replace temporary structures built in 2006.
The pumps at the entrances of the three canals are different from the drainage pumps operated by the S&WB around the city. Those pumps, which operate whenever there's rain, take water from the streets and push it into the canals, which feed into the lake.
The pumps that will be run by the flood authority will operate only when the gates in each canal are closed to hold back storm surge during a hurricane or tropical storm.
During Hurricane Katrina, storm surge flowed from the lake into the canals, contributing to the failure of floodwalls that caused most of the city to fill with water.
Now, when a tropical storm approaches the city, the floodgates at the mouths of the canals are closed and the pumping stations push water into the lake.
The corps is required to turn the pumping stations and floodgates over to a local government agency, in this case the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Poché said. However, the coastal authority never intended to operate the structures itself, planning instead to work out an agreement with a local government body.
For years, it was “common knowledge” that the S&WB would be considered for the job, according to Derek Boese, the flood authority’s chief administrative officer.
But Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked the flood authority to step in, said Ignacio Harrouch, chief of operations for the state coastal authority.
The coastal authority “had no concerns about the Sewerage & Water Board taking over the pumps,” Harrouch said. “Mayor Landrieu had a different recommendation.”
Landrieu has been highly critical of the agency since heavy rainstorms flooded parts of the city in July and August, including areas that don’t typically flood during tropical storms.
During and after the summer floods, officials with the city and the water board repeatedly said there were no problems with the citywide drainage system. That turned out not to be true. Key pumping stations were hamstrung by downed pumps and the turbines that power them. A pumping station in Lakeview wasn’t staffed properly.
The controversy resulted in the departure of several top officials, including Cedric Grant, one of Landrieu’s highest-ranking deputies and the head of the Sewerage & Water Board, and Mark Jernigan, director of the city’s Public Works Department. Joe Becker, the S&WB’s general superintendent, was also fired.
Since then, an interim management team has led the board’s operations.
Boese wouldn’t comment on what prompted the shift from the S&WB to the flood protection authority, other than to say his agency is “very comfortable” handling complex flood control systems.
“Quite frankly, we know that when the water comes, our systems will work,” Boese said.
Since construction started, all five government bodies — the city, the state coastal authority, the corps, the water board and the flood protection authority — have talked about who would run the pumping stations when they were finished. Those discussions stepped up this summer as the project neared completion.
“Certainly after the August event … we started having more discussions with the flood authority,” though that wasn’t the only factor, said Ryan Berni, the city’s deputy mayor for external affairs.
Hassinger said the flood protection authority had been involved in discussions for some time about who should operate the pumps and gates. “The strong consensus is we can do it, we should do it, we can afford to do it,“ he said.
With a staff of more than 200, the flood protection authority already runs a hurricane protection system that includes several hundred miles of levees and floodwalls, 250 floodgates, about 100 drainage valves and eight other complex structures, including storm-surge barriers.
The three pumping stations at the outfall canals will be operated in coordination with those structures, said Erin Burns, a spokeswoman for Landrieu. Given the need for clear communication, “the flood control structures and the pumping stations should be under the control of the same management,” she said.
When the floodgates at the canals are closed, those pumps must also be coordinated with the interior pumps channeling stormwater throughout the city. The Sewerage & Water Board will continue to operate those interior pumps.
Right now, the corps runs the temporary pumps at the mouth of the outfall canals, and Poché said the two agencies haven’t had any problems communicating during storms.
Boese said he doesn’t foresee any problems either.
“We are prepared to staff and manage the stations,” he said, adding that agency's staff has participated in training by the corps for the past several months.
New Orleans Advocate reporter Jeff Adelson contributed to this article.