As an angry line of storms bore down on southeast Louisiana on Saturday, Jefferson Parish officials knew they had a new tool to combat possible high water in Harahan: a fully operational new pump station.
That station, the centerpiece of the "Pump to the River" project, has three pumps each capable of sucking 400 cubic feet of rainwater per second out of the Soniat Canal and pushing it through pipes for two miles to the Mississippi River.
On Monday, officials gathered at the Dickory Avenue drainage facility to celebrate not just the completion of the station, but of $615 million worth of Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project work in Jefferson Parish.
The SELA program was authorized by Congress in 1996 to help Orleans, Jefferson and St. Tammany parishes combat rain-related flooding. In Jefferson alone, 59 contracts have been issued under the program for drainage improvements on both sides of the river.
"The levees create a bowl," said Col. Michael Clancy, commander of the Corps' New Orleans district. "Once the water gets in, it's got to get out. ... It makes no sense to have billions of dollars of levees if it's just going to flood when it rains."
The projects were funded up front by the federal government, though local governments were expected to pay 35 percent of the cost, Parish President Mike Yenni said. Overall, once credits are factored in, the Jefferson's share has been around $189 million.
In addition to the Harahan pumping station, the SELA program has also funded east bank improvements at the Elmwood Canal pumping station, the Suburban Canal and other projects.
On the west bank, the funding has paid for upgraded equipment at the Westwego, Westminster/Lincolnshire and Cousins pump stations as well as several canals.
Still, work remains to be done, Yenni said. The parish needs to upgrade the pumping capacity in Old Metairie and Old Jefferson. Two other SELA projects could get funded as well: Hoey's Canal on the east bank and Cataouatche basin improvements on the west bank.
On Monday, however, officials were keen to show off the Harahan pump station, the jewel of the $180 million Pump to the River project.
Inside thick concrete walls — the station is built to withstand 250-mph winds — three massive, 3,000-horsepower diesel engines sit on a second-story platform. Each engine is fed by a 1,000-gallon diesel tank above it, and each of the tanks is attached to much larger reserve tanks outside.
The station has enough fuel to run each pump at full capacity for about eight days, according to Manny Aspuria, who manages the parish's pump stations.
Two backup generators are on hand to help maintain power to the station's electronics and monitoring systems.
Touch screens listing the pumps' status and capacity, as well as the status of other systems at the facility, are evident around the station. Although the station does require on-site personnel, a crew as small as two could run the entire operation, Aspuria said.
All three pumps were operating Saturday as the storm system dumped 6 inches of rain and the Soniat Canal rose above 19 feet. As a result, the canal dropped to 17 feet in about 45 minutes and stayed there, according to Jefferson Parish Director of Drainage Mitch Theriot.
During the Aug. 5 rainstorm that caused widespread flooding, the canal rose to 22 feet and maintained that level for more than five hours, he said.
Stormwater from the Soniat Canal was formerly pushed to the lake, which is more than five miles away. Pumping rainwater just two miles to the river is a "huge step" in improving the parish's flood prevention efforts, Yenni said.
The system is theoretically capable of pumping out 9 inches of rain over a 24-hour period, he added.