Marlyville / Fontainebleau / Broadmoor Preservation
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1.2-inch rain burns out three drainage pumps
By Bruce Nolan and Michelle Krupa Staff writers

An unremarkable 1.2-inch rainfall burned up three massive Sewerage & Water Board pumps Wednesday, officials said, underscoring the needs of a vast municipal drainage system that still requires almost $40 million in post-Katrina work and has received little public attention, even as much-publicized levee repairs have been racing forward for months.

The pumps, among the largest in the city’s unique drainage system, were located at stations in Lakeview, Gentilly and Mid-City, but no flooding was reported, officials said.

Like scores of similar pumps in the complex system, the burned out units were driven by huge electric motors that sat partly submerged in saltwater for as long as three weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck the city Aug. 29. The motors burned up when insulation failed as they began to turn under a normal operating load, said Joseph Sullivan, the S&WB’s general superintendent. Wednesday’s rain was the first significant precipitation in what has been an unusually dry year.

The three pumps are located at stations on the 17th Street Canal, the London Avenue Canal and North Broad Street. Sullivan said they are now off-line until they can be repaired. Their huge motors, some producing as must as 2,500 horsepower, will be rewound by hand with new copper wiring, a complex operation that can take more than a month, Sullivan said.

The pumps' failure, just over a month before the start of hurricane season, raises questions as to the reliability of a post-Katrina system that S&WB officials said can drain about 16 percent less water than before the storm. Whether the city’s system today is basically robust — or riddled with unreliable, salt-damaged pump motors — is a matter of dispute between S&WB officials and members of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, which has been monitoring the board’s progress as part of its post-Katrina planning process.

Water board officials said they believe the drainage system is basically sound. And they point out that the Corps of Engineers is preparing a $40 million bundle of contracts to rewind every pump motor that sat in saltwater, among other repairs.

Executive Director Marcia St. Martin compared the rewinding to planned maintenance on an old automobile, rather than a matter of urgent repair.

“Taking it out of service and repairing will insure its reliability. But that doesn’t not equate it to being unreliable today,” she said

Sullivan said the New Orleans drainage system today can handle a continuous rain of half-an-inch per hour, compared with sixth-tenths of an inch per hour before the Katrina. The difference derives the loss of several pumps to the storm, notwithstanding the failure of the three pumps Wednesday, he said.

“The basic system is up to its normal operating standard,” said Sullivan.

But Matt McBride, a mechanical engineer with pump expertise who monitors flood protection for the Broadmoor group, said pump motors that sat in saltwater are unreliable and should have been placed on an aggressive repair schedule months ago.

“Why did everyone rewire their house after the storm? Because the wiring was shot after being underwater for two weeks. That’s as basic as I can put it,” McBride said.

“This is the equivalent of throwing a toaster in the lake, pulling it out two weeks later, and thinking that because you dried off with a hair-dryer the toaster won’t catch fire. I don’t think anyone in industry would accept that.”

McBride said the Broadmoor group will present findings today to members of the City Council and neighborhood groups, as well as candidates vying for office in a May 20 city election.

“This cuts across all party lines and all demographic groups,” said McBride. “All of us want to stay dry.”

After flooding receded in the weeks after Katrina, S&WB employees worked on a breakneck schedule to clean and dry the huge electric motors at a cost of about $65 million, Sullivan said. He said technicians tested motors for internal short circuits, but those tests could not reveal how the motors would hold up under hours of normal operating load.

In calculating its pumping capacity on hand, the S&WB considers those pumps reliable “until the time they fail,” Sullivan said. Because they are ingeniously simple devices, their failure is not easily predicted, he said.

Sullivan and St. Martin said that after Katrina the water board did not — and still does not — have the money to begin shipping motors out to be rewound and have bearings replaced. That job now falls to the Corps, which will pick up the cost as part of the $40 million in contracts it is preparing for bid.

The Corps’ Task Force Guardian, charged with restoring the area’s hurricane protection to pre-Katrina levels by June 1, recently posted a document to its Web site listing 61 pumps needing work at 23 pumping stations.

The three that failed Wednesday were on the list.

The pumps needing work provide most of the city’s total pumping capacity. In many cases, those pumps slated for repair — or in the S&WB’s view, maintenance — provide the bulk of the pumping capacity in any given station.

For instance, all of the pumps at Pumping Station No. 3 on the London Avenue Canal need work. And pumps needing work produce 86 percent of the pumping at the massive Pumping Station No. 6 on the 17th Street Canal, which drains Broadmoor, Carrollton and part of Old Metairie, among other areas.

According to S&WB documents, only nine of the city’s 23 manned pump stations now can operate at pre-Katrina levels. Two small stations — one near the Hammond Highway bridge and the other in an undeveloped part of eastern New Orleans — are offline entirely, the records show.

St. Martin downplayed the effect of an inoperable or severely compromised pump station on any given area. “A lot of (water) could be redirected from one part of town to another,” she said. “Zero capacity does not mean that the area is not served.”

Case in point: Pump Station No. 12, which sits at Pontchartrain and Robert E. Lee boulevards and moves a maximum 1,000 cubic feet per second out of Lakeview neighborhoods.

Since Katrina, Station No. 12 has been offline. But in its absence, S&WB officials say the rainwater it typically drains would flow south, parallel to the 17th Street Canal, down Fleur de Lis Drive. It eventually would be siphoned by Pump Station No. 6, which straddles the canal, and pumped into the lake, St. Martin said.

In affixing a $39.6 million price tag to the load of repairs required at pump stations citywide, the corps has proposed projects at 24 sites — all 23 manned pump stations, plus an electrical station on Earhart Boulevard.

The most expensive job is Pump Station No. 17, a massive facility on Florida Avenue near Franklin Avenue, about a mile west of the Industrial Canal. According to corps documents, two feet of flooding damaged a pair of pump motors, electrical switch equipment, a large discharge line and the building itself. Repairs are expected to cost $7.5 million.

Sullivan, however, discounted the necessity of some of the repairs catalogued by the corps. For instance, in one case — the Interstate 10 Underpass Station — the corps calls for bearings in three pumps to be replaced because raw water, rather than potable water, was used to lubricate them when the city’s water purification system failed.

But Sullivan said no tests have been conducted to show that the dirty water did any harm to the bearings. “That isn’t proven yet,” Sullivan said. “That is not a proven fact.”

McBride said the Corps is “totally culpable” for not hustling the pump repairs with the same energy it is pushing levee repairs around the region.

The task force’s mission statement posted on its website says Corps “will assess damages to the publicly owned hurricane and flood protection systems, including pumping stations, and consider/ provide recommended repairs by mid-January 2006.”

But Jim St. Germain, the Corps official working on pump station rehabilitation, said “there wasn’t a mission to re-establish all the interior drainage capacity by June 1.

“We’ve been getting approvals, getting funding, putting out the work for bids, but we never set the goal to have all the pumping stations repairded by June 1,” he said.

In fact, all the pump work is not slated to be finished until September 2007, more than two years after Katrina, and not a single corps contract has yet been let, St. Martin said.

By contrast, neighboring Jefferson Parish has been able to fix its 22 manned pump stations, Drainage Department Director Kazem Alikhani said. “Everything is 100 percent,” he said. “All the pumps are operational.”

To begin, Jefferson’s problems never came close to matching the catastrophe in New Orleans, Alikhani said. Even as neighborhoods on both banks succumbed to street flooding, the drainage system only ever was down as much as 15 percent from its capacity.

Further, Jefferson was able to finance millions of dollars of its own repairs, though now the parish is waiting to find out whether FEMA and the corps will honor its requests for reimbursement, he said.

“Thank God we’re not in a position that New Orleans is,” Alikhani said. “We had some equipment that was damaged. We were just blessed that we didn’t go through the problem that our neighbor went through.”

(Bruce Nolan can be reached at or (504) 826-3344)