Newly released logs suggest that some of the city's operable drainage pumps sat idle for hours during last weekend's rain and flooding, potentially compounding problems caused by the pumps that had been taken offline for repairs.
The logs, which were posted online late Friday, raise fresh questions both about the city's readiness and about whether officials at the Sewerage & Water Board consciously misled the public during and after the storm.
However, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said he was not prepared to respond Saturday to the new claims, instead waiting to comment on whether the pumps had been turned on until an "after-action report" is prepared.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Saturday morning that an electrical turbine damaged by…
The mayor's silence underscored an apparent communications breakdown between the Sewerage & Water Board and the mayor's office despite reforms over the past few years aimed at more closely synchronizing the agency with the rest of City Hall.
The new logs, posted online and analyzed by mechanical engineer Matt McBride on Friday, seem to contradict some of the information presented to the public at a long and contentious City Council hearing Tuesday.
They add to the increasingly urgent questions about the status of the city’s drainage system and raise new concerns that, even beyond the decrepit state of its pumps, turbines and pipes, the Sewerage & Water Board may have failed in its duty to keep the city dry.
It's unclear why the additional failures were not disclosed by the S&WB, whose two top officials resigned or were fired amid aggressive questioning by the City Council.
The big question remains how much of an impact all the problems had on the severity and extent of the Aug. 5 flooding, which was prompted by rainfall that officials insist far exceeded the capacity of the system to drain the city even under ideal circumstances.
But many other urgent questions remain about how well the S&WB managed the crisis and whether its leadership — including Landrieu, who is president of the board and in effect appointed its soon-to-depart executive director — could have done more to avoid such a vulnerable situation.
Among the questions: Why weren’t alarms raised about the numerous pumps that were out of service or the fact that nearly all the turbines that power them were down, making flooding far more likely? How much did power issues and staffing constraints affect when pumps were turned on? Could the emergency repairs and back-ups now being arranged have been put in place earlier? How much risk did officials think was acceptable? And why wasn’t the precarious situation communicated to top city officials or the general public?
The rapid pace of the revelations over the past week has left Landrieu’s administration playing defense, unsure of the information it was getting from the S&WB and unable to make firm statements about the drainage system’s status and vulnerabilities.
That unusual lack of confidence was on display Saturday morning, as Landrieu deferred questions about the newly released logs to an "after-action report" he is commissioning to review what is and is not working within the system.
A turbine damaged by a fire Wednesday night at the power plant that keeps New Orleans’ drain…
Glimmer of good news
There was a minor glimmer of good news on Saturday, when Landrieu announced that a turbine that helps provides power to the pumps was back up and running after emergency repairs to damage caused by a control-panel fire Wednesday night. That turbine, along with power from another in-house power plant and Entergy, is the sole working power source for many of the city's largest pumps.
In theory, its return to operation should mean the pumping system now has the same amount of power it had a week ago, though even that announcement was couched in words of caution until all of the more than two dozen back-up generators the city has ordered can be installed.
“Until those generators are online, there will continue to be some risk to our drainage capacity,” Landrieu said Saturday.
While the Landrieu administration, now in its eighth and final year, has typically sought to project an aura of managerial competence and assurance, the ongoing drainage debacle has left officials afraid to make firm statements about the current state of the pumps.
The Byzantine and outdated systems of the S&WB have the administration flying somewhat blind, even reaching out to McBride for help in deciphering the board's own handwritten logs as officials work to come up with a key for the arcane notations scribbled on them. While officials have privately suggested not all of McBride’s interpretations are correct, they have not challenged the main thrust of his online posts.
McBride’s analysis includes the explosive claim that the pump at Station No. 12, which serves hard-hit Lakeview, was not manned at all during the storm that began between 2 and 3 p.m. An operator finally arrived about 7:50 p.m., according to McBride, and his initial request to turn on the pump was denied.
The S&WB’s central command wouldn’t give the go-ahead to turn on the pump until an hour later, which matches testimony from residents who said they didn’t see water begin to drain from the area until hours after the rain ended. Previously, S&WB officials had forcefully denied claims that the pumps in the area were late to come on.
Some parts of town were flooding by 3:15 or 3:30 p.m.
McBride’s interpretation of the logs also suggests power problems may have caused S&WB officials to limit the number of pumps working in the station that serves Mid-City, which also saw widespread flooding.
That station was already down to about 63 percent of its capacity because one of its pumps was offline. While it was running one pump, which could drain 1,000 cubic feet of water per second, officials did not give permission to turn on a second pump — with the ability to move about half that much water — until four hours after operators asked to use it.
Highlighting how opaque the S&WB’s operations have been, Landrieu said Saturday that he is depending on the yet-to-be-started report to untangle the situation.
“I have not looked at the logs personally,” Landrieu said. “I think the after-action report is going to demonstrate what the facts are. The logs will say what they say. I’m sure that after-action report will reveal things that we did not know or things were not accurate at the time; that wouldn’t surprise me at all.”
S&WB officials initially said the system was operating at full capacity, but they later acknowledged that wasn't accurate. The number of pumps that weren't operable has crept up steadily: First it was seven, then eight, then 14. The count now stands at 17, leaving the system at 73 percent capacity at best.
Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni said Friday he intends to revisit a 2007 agreement the…
More severe problems?
The decisions not to turn on some pumps Aug. 5 may also point to more severe problems with the utility's electrical system than officials have yet disclosed. Officials have admitted that various pumps were offline at points during the storm because there was not enough electricity to power them, but those were described as a handful of isolated incidents.
It all raises questions about the current capacity of the system to handle a storm, something the mayor said remains a major concern.
While Landrieu announced that the turbine damaged Wednesday night has been repaired, the S&WB’s power plant is still far below capacity. Of its five turbines, one has been offline since 2012 for major repairs, and two more went down in recent months. Another does not produce energy at the unusual frequency that most of the pumps run on, and only a limited amount of its power can be converted to run them.
Officials said at a S&WB committee meeting last month that the system was incredibly vulnerable — and that was before the third turbine went offline.
It all suggests that the still-limited power supply would have to be rationed again in the event of a major storm, when citizens would expect all the pumps to be operating. Officials do not have an exact estimate of how many pumps can be turned on at once under current conditions.
“We believe we have what we need in the event of a typical rainfall, but we do not have what we need in the case of a deluge or a major rain event,” Landrieu said.
Crews are working to install 18 large generators, primarily to provide back-up power should Entergy’s lines go down, and Landrieu said he expects them to be in place by Monday. More are on their way to the city and will be installed as soon as possible, he said.
The administration is planning a multi-pronged approach moving forward.
Engineers and mechanics are working to get all of the pumps back up and running as repairs continue to the power turbines. At the same time, the city is seeking a private firm to compile the after-action report and to temporarily take over management of the S&WB.
Landrieu stressed the temporary nature of that arrangement Saturday.
“I do not intend to privatize the Sewerage & Water Board, and I don’t intend to sign any contracts that will bind the next administration,” Landrieu said. His term ends in less than nine months.