Officials on Monday revealed more mishaps that contributed to New Orleans' boil-water advisory last month, including employees who apparently abandoned their posts amid the crisis and a delayed warning from Entergy New Orleans that it was shutting off power used by the city's pumps.
In a presentation to City Council members who continue to demand answers for the Nov. 17 failure of the city's water system, Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban said two high-level employees "went AWOL" as the S&WB worked to restore water pressure.
"They didn’t necessarily leave, but they were not available," Korban said just weeks after the S&WB denied reports that only a single employee was available to try to fix the drop in pressure. "They were not communicating, and they had a crucial assignment."
In addition, Entergy revealed Monday that as part of an emergency repair to a broken pole, it cut electricity to part of its system that was powering one of the S&WB's pumps, without telling anyone at that agency for more than four hours.
Council members reacted with near disbelief to the revelations, which suggested employee missteps and a lack of communication were as much to blame for the boil-water advisory as the tenuous state of the city's water infrastructure.
"We had a seriously unsafe condition for four hours, and not once during that time did you contact Sewerage & Water Board," Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer said in response to the statements by Entergy. "This is the most insane thing I've ever heard of."
The new information trickling out Monday came weeks after hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians were warned, yet again, to boil their water before consuming it because of a loss of pressure in the system.
A drop in pressure below 20 pounds per square inch in parts of the water system forced officials to issue the warning, which was required by state health guidelines because of the threat of contamination.
The advisory lasted through much of the weekend and impacted all east bank residents and businesses.
Last month, officials detailed the cascading series of failures that led to the drop in pressure and the warning to customers, but on Monday they added new insights into what has become a recurring problem.
The mess put the hobbled S&WB's failings on display and exposed gaps in communication between Entergy and one of its most important customers.
It also again rattled any public confidence the S&WB may have gained since it unveiled a new $80 million water tower that is designed to help prevent boil-water orders after a power outage by giving crews more time to make repairs.
In the past year, officials have issued 10 such orders for varying parts of the city.
The agency issued the Nov. 17 order when its team could not keep pressure up after a vehicle crashed into an Entergy pole powering a Panola Street station pump at about midnight.
Entergy New Orleans, which helps S&WB power the city's water systems, said weeks ago that it had to cut power to the line to make repairs.
But what the utility didn't say is that it waited four hours to inform the S&WB of that problem, robbing the agency of critical preparation time.
"Part of our current protocols is to quickly and safely isolate the problem, but it does not include customer notification," Entergy executive Melonie Stewart told the council.
When the power was shut off, the new, 1.6 million-gallon water tower stabilized the system's pressure, but its water was exhausted after 20 minutes. A second tower that would double that time won't be ready until early 2019.
The cold weather that weekend meant S&WB employees couldn't use a sidelined $31 million turbine, which generates the correct type of power but can't be used when temperatures fall below 45 degrees.
Also at fault that Saturday morning were two S&WB middle managers who were supposed to direct operators to deal with the downed pumps. Instead, those people "bailed" on the agency, Korban said Monday — an issue he attributed to the agency's continuing struggle to find qualified staff.
Korban would not provide the employees' names or job titles. But he said one of them has left the agency voluntarily, while the other is on suspension.
Weeks ago, when WWL-TV reported that only one staffer was available to fix the problems at the pumps, the S&WB disputed that account and said multiple people were on hand to address the situation.
Council members Joe Giarrusso, Cyndi Nguyen and others pressed Korban to provide long-term solutions to staffing challenges. "What is going to change in the future, so that if those two people fail, freak out, bail, fall asleep, that it's not left entirely on their shoulders?" Giarrusso said.
"I don't know if I have a full answer for you today," Korban responded, but he said the agency has discussed ways to improve recruitment internally.
Entergy, too, did not escape the council's criticism.
In most cases, downed poles cause immediate outages, meaning there isn't time to give customers notice, according to Entergy executive Tad Patella. But he admitted that was not the case here, as a car crashed into the pole but didn't immediately cut off its power.
Entergy has since revised its procedures to require informing the S&WB if power will be cut, Patella said.