A fire at the power plant that keeps New Orleans’ drainage pumps running left the city's stormwater system hanging by a thread Thursday, dealing another blow to residents’ faith in the Sewerage & Water Board’s overmatched and outdated infrastructure.
Many wondered whether a routine summer downpour might swamp the heart of the city for the second time in a week.
Residents who had spent the past few days ripping out sodden drywall or drying out cars awoke at 3 a.m. to a text alert from City Hall warning that the city’s already faltering pumps had been further compromised just as another bout of thunderstorms appeared on the horizon.
Following the fire, S&WB could rely on only a single turbine that is not typically used to power the drainage pumps throughout the day. Should the utility lose back-up power from Entergy, that last-ditch turbine can power only a portion of the overall system, leaving officials fearful that as little as 2 inches of rain could overwhelm their ability to pump it out.
The power problems do not affect the utility's water and sewerage systems.
As the day came to a close, it appeared New Orleans had dodged any significant rain or flooding for now, though crews had not yet fully repaired the turbine put out of commission by the fire Wednesday night, and forecasts called for more storms on Friday.
Just before 10:30 p.m., the city announced S&WB began testing the turbine to determine if it's ready to be brought back online fully after working on it all day Thursday.
Additionally, the city ordered an additional 26 generators and portable diesel-powered pumps to assist in maintaining pumping capacity in case a large rain cause the loss of Entergy power. The timeframe to install and configure the generators, however, is unknown, but could take several days after assessing the generators once they arrive.
After a few days largely on the sidelines in the growing debacle, Mayor Mitch Landrieu took center stage Thursday, reasserting authority with proclamations that the soon-to-be purged leadership of the S&WB will temporarily be replaced with a private firm and holding multiple news conferences and meetings to provide updates on the latest problems and what will happen next.
At the same time, the fallout continued over who was to blame for the misinformation coming from city officials early in the week on the state of the city’s pumps.
Two members of the S&WB submitted their resignations, one explicitly in protest of the ouster of top officials whom the mayor blamed for misinformation about the S&WB’s ability to respond to the floods.
That information was still evolving on Thursday. S&WB officials maintained for days that the system was working at its maximum capacity Saturday, acknowledging only Monday that eight pumps were down for repairs. That revelation led to an explosive City Council meeting the next day, when the number was increased to 14.
By early Thursday, the mayor and city officials, who had largely supplanted S&WB employees in speaking for the agency, increased the number again, to 16, and said it could be revised still further.
But by the time of that revelation, more pressing issues had already arisen.
At 8 p.m. Wednesday, a fire at the S&WB’s South Claiborne Avenue plant knocked out a turbine that powers pumps on the east bank west of the Industrial Canal. While the turbine is one of five operated by the utility, the three others that also provide the archaic 25-cycle frequency standard needed by the system have been offline for months — or in some case years — for repairs.
The outage exposed a major liability in the S&WB’s setup, leaving it relying on its final back-up turbine and power from Entergy to keep the pumps operating.
In both those cases, the power has to be converted from 60-cycle frequency before it can be used by the pumps, a limit that officials said would prevent more than 38 of the 58 operational pumps in the affected area from running at the same time.
New Orleans East, the Lower 9th Ward and Algiers all have pumps that get power directly from Entergy.
The rest of the pumps cannot directly use that power, a major dilemma that has been brought up repeatedly over the years. The pre-World War II power standard they rely on has long been abandoned elsewhere, and the utility's turbines are so ancient their parts must be especially built by the S&WB or outside firms.
Multiple reports over the years have called for an upgrade — both to reduce the cost of operating the system and to improve its reliability.
One of the pumps has been undergoing FEMA-funded repairs since 2012, which are not expected to be complete until next year. Another broke down in May and a third in July.
S&WB Executive Director Cedric Grant, who announced his retirement earlier this week, explained the precarious position at a committee meeting last month as he pushed for approval to buy a $10 million rotor to replace one that had been in one of the damaged turbines. The agency had originally contracted with Siemens to refurbish it for $2 million, but it was told it was so far gone the company could not guarantee it would work for more than two years.
Grant got the committee’s approval to go ahead with the refurbishment and begin the yearlong process of manufacturing a replacement.
Grant told the committee, “We’re in the ultimate state of vulnerability now. We’ve got half the system working and half not.”
That argument would prove prescient when the final 25-cycle turbine went down Wednesday night. The city sent out an alert about 3 a.m., and Landrieu announced the pumps would be at diminished capacity until the turbine could be fixed.
City officials have repeatedly said that regardless of the number of pumps operating on Saturday, the deluge of more than 9 inches of rain in some parts of the city would have swamped any drainage system's ability to pump it out in a short period of time.
But with the turbine offline, the situation is even more dire. While the remaining capacity is enough for a simple rainfall, anything more could lead to severe flooding, Landrieu warned.
“We are at risk if we have a massive rain event that comes up at the last minute and creates the kind of flooding we had Saturday,” he said early Thursday. “The power we have available to us now will not be enough to pump the city out in the time needed.”
Worse, relying on the city’s last turbine meant that if it should need to be taken offline or a storm knocked out Entergy power lines, the system’s capacity would be reduced even further.
It was a sentiment he would return through in numerous meetings throughout the day.
Later in the day, Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an emergency declaration and pledged to provide 14 two-megawatt generators to the city. Many schools were closed, and officials said public schools would remain shuttered Friday.
Crews worked throughout the night and day to get the turbine restored, but it was still offline Thursday evening.
At a S&WB meeting Thursday morning, Landrieu, who serves at the board’s president but rarely attends its meetings personally, got approval to expedite contracts needed to repair the pumps that are down and make repairs to the turbine.
“What I do not understand is why we did not make provisions to provide redundancy,” Landrieu said.
The board also approved hiring a private firm to review exactly what happened Saturday, part of a “trust but verify” attitude that has shaped how City Hall is now responding to all issues surrounding the S&WB. The review also calls for an outside firm to take over management of the S&WB’s operations temporarily.
Landrieu spokesman Tyronne Walker said the administration is looking for a private company to come in "as a temporary arrangement, for a finite time frame to be determined, to allow for the stabilization of the system."
The company would be tasked with doing "a serious and thorough analysis and transition to the next executive director and leadership team," he said.
It’s unclear what company that might be or how it would be chosen, though the French conglomerate Veolia Water has a branch that handles water systems and already has local connections through a S&WB contract to deal with water quality issues. The firm is associated with Transdev, the company that manages the RTA.
A City Charter change put in place during an attempt to privatize the S&WB in the 2000s requires voter approval for any privatization contract greater than $5 million.
City officials did not respond to requests for comment on those issues Thursday.
At the same time, some members of the S&WB's governing board pushed back at Landrieu. Xavier University official Marion Bracy said he had been approached by neighbors about the city's constantly changing story about the flood without having been given any information by the administration or board officials.
“We were left out there as board members with no official information from anyone at S&WB,” Bracy said. “It was extremely painful to have to repeat what we heard on the news.”
A more direct challenge came later in the day, when S&WB President Pro Tem Scott Jacobs and board member Kerri Kane announced their resignations.
Jacobs, who chaired the board when Landrieu was absent, blasted the mayor for scapegoating Grant and other S&WB officials for issues that had more to do with the massive infrastructure problems facing the utility. All the issues that have come up this week — broken pumps, failing turbines — have long been known and unaddressed, he said.
"City Hall has known for years that drainage is inadequate," Jacobs said. "I’m disappointed that instead of standing up and saying, 'This is a problem and now’s the time to deal with it,' we’re going to shoot a civil servant an hour until this problem is resolved."
In an emailed statement, Landrieu said he was surprised by Jacobs' comments.
"There's obviously a lot of passion, anger and frustration stemming from these events," Landrieu said. "My commitment to reforming S&WB has been unwavering, and I stand by that record working with the board. No one can say with a straight face that we have not worked hard and successfully secured record amounts for infrastructure and spoken almost weekly about the need for more, often specifically for drainage."
Looking forward, city Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Hebert told the City Council on Thursday that the administration is looking into early warning systems that could be used during flooding.
Immediately, that could include installing devices at 11 underpasses that would send warnings to motorists and the city’s Emergency Operations Center, Hebert said. A longer-term project would be to develop a model that could predict and give warnings about likely flooding on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood or street-by-street basis, he said.
In terms of prevention, the city is looking to "green" infrastructure projects that will help retain or slow the flow of water with natural features, to allow the pumps time to catch up. Eight such projects are now in design with the assistance of $141 million in federal funding.