Another N. Orleans Black Eye for Corps of Engineers

March 21, 2007

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This time it's faulty pumps. In its rush to meet President Bush's promise to protect New Orleans by the start of the 2006 hurricane season, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed defective flood-control pumps last year — despite warnings from its own expert that the equipment would fail during a storm, according to documents The Associated Press has obtained.

"Let me give you the scenario: You have four months to build something that nobody has ever built before, and if you don't, the city floods and the Corps, which already has a black eye, could basically be dissolved. How many people would put up with a second flooding?" Randy Persica, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' resident engineer for New Orleans' three major drainage canals, told The Associated Press.

In its rush to meet President George W. Bush's promise to protect New Orleans by the start of the 2006 hurricane season, the Corps installed defective flood-control pumps last year — despite warnings from its own expert that the equipment would fail during a storm, according to documents AP obtained earlier this month.

Fortunately, as we noted in December, 2006 was a mercifully mild hurricane season the year following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita striking the U.S. Gulf Coast. As such, the new pumps "were never pressed into action."

Yet the Corps and the equipment's manufacturer continue to struggle getting the 34 heavy-duty pumps working properly. The pumps are now being pulled out and overhauled because of excessive vibration, according to Corps officials. Other problems have included overheated engines, broken hoses and blown gaskets, the AP-obtained documents report.

"Misgivings" about the pumps were chronicled in a May 2006 memo provided to the AP by Matt McBride, a mechanical engineer and flooded-out Hurricane Katrina victim who has been closely watching the rebuilding of the city's flood defenses. The memo, which details many of the mechanical problems and criticizes the testing procedures used, was written by a Corps mechanical engineer overseeing quality assurance at a site in Florida.

About a dozen of the 34 pumps on order were already in place in New Orleans when Maria Garzino wrote her report. In her memo, Garzino told corps officials that the equipment being installed was defective, further warning that the pumps would break down "should they be tasked to run, under normal use, as would be required in the event of a hurricane," notes AP.

The pumps, 60 inches in diameter and capable of moving 200 cubic feet of water per second, are run by pressurized hydraulic oil. The supercharged oil cranks up a hydraulic motor, which in turn spins water-moving propellers. The pumps failed less-strenuous testing than the original contract called for, according to the memo. Originally, each of the 34 pumps was to be "load tested" — made to pump water — but that requirement for all the pumps was dropped, the memo said. Of eight pumps that were load tested, one was turned on for a few minutes and another was run at one-third of operating pressure, the memo said. Three of the other load-tested pumps "experienced catastrophic failure," Garzino wrote.

The memo does not spell out what would have happened if the pumps had failed in a storm. But the Corps has acknowledged that parts of New Orleans could be hit with serious flooding if the floodgate pumps could not keep up.

The Corps said it decided to press ahead with installation, and then fix the machinery while it was in place, on the theory that some pumping capacity was better than none. And it defended the manufacturer, which was under time pressure.

According to AP:

The 34 pumps — installed in the drainage canals that take water from this bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city and deposit it in Lake Pontchartrain — represented a new ring of protection that was added to New Orleans' flood defenses after Katrina.

The city also relies on miles of levees and hundreds of other pumps in various locations.

Hurricane Katrina's storm surge caused water on Lake Pontchartrain to back up into the city's drainage canals. The canal walls gave way, and about 80 percent of New Orleans flooded. Nearly 1,600 people in Louisiana died in the storm and its aftermath.

Afterward, Congress gave the Corps $5.7 billion to make New Orleans safe from hurricanes. The Corps rushed to fix broken levees and floodwalls and make good on President Bush's promise that the city would be protected "better than pre-Katrina by June 1."

After the memo came out, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers said that "excessive vibration problems with defective pumps at three major drainage canals in New Orleans will be fixed within seven weeks, before the 2007 hurricane season opens," according to another Associated Press report.

"By the end of April, we will have those pumps operating effectively," Lt. Gen. Carl Strock told members of a Senate subcommittee. "We know what the problems are and we have the solutions in place."

Because of the size of the pumps, there was no protocol for testing them in the factory, Strock told the Senate Appropriations Committee's energy and water development subcommittee.

John Paul Woodley, Jr., the assistant Army secretary who oversees the Corps, said the challenges of installing the pumps shouldn't be minimized.

"They were accomplished in time for the beginning of the 2006 hurricane season on a schedule of unprecedented speed and scope," he said. "I do know that a great deal of technical expertise and scrutiny has been given to this."

News of the report comes only weeks after the city of New Orleans filed a $77 billion damage claim against the Army Corps of Engineers for the flooding that inundated the city when levees failed after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The claimants argue that it was the failure of the Corps to develop a river outlet into the outlying wetlands that destroyed ecosystems and turned the shipping channel into a funnel for surging waters when Katrina struck.

Earlier lawsuits accused the Corps of Engineers of building substandard levees that failed to protect the city.

Resources

Corps Placed Faulty Pumps in New Orleans by Cain Burdeau The Associated Press

Army Corps promises to have faulty New Orleans pumps fixed by May by Ann Sanner The Associated Press

New Orleans sues US army corps for $77bn over Katrina by Ed Pilkington The Guardian

Earlier:

Engineers: '122 U.S. Levees at Risk of Failing'

Re-engineering New Orleans

Of Hurricanes' Aftermath, N'Orleans' Levees, Engineers' Efforts

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