Fix the pumps

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

More odd goings on with Corps purchasing

I came across this solicitation from the Vicksburg office of the Corps:
Solicitation number : W912EE-07-R-0004
Title : R--Provide acquisition support services to the Vicksburg Consolidated Contracting Office (VCCO) with support to Vicksburg District, Mississippi Valley Division HQs, and the Hurricane Protection Office (HPO) in New Orleans, LA.

Synopsis: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Vicksburg Consolidated Contracting Office has an immediate requirement for approximately 8-contract specialists/administrators and 2-procurement clerks/technicians to report to the Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans, LA on or about April 1, 2007. Proposals will be evaluated using a Best Value source selection process that will result in award of a fixed price Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity contract to the responsive and responsible offeror whose proposal, conforming to the solicitation, offers the Best Value to the Government considering technical, past performance, and price. Daily per diem will not be allowed. The contractor shall provide contracting and acquisition support services to the Vicksburg Consolidated Contracting Office (VCCO), Vicksburg District. This may include contracting support to Vicksburg District (MVK), Mississippi Valley Division (MVD) HQs, and Hurricane Protection Office (HPO). The anticipated duration of the HPO mission is 4 to 5 years.

There's a few things that are interesting about this:

1) The Corps is contracting out its purchasing operations, even though it's got tons of purchasing clerks. One has to wonder about oversight of such a contract, especially considering the huge contracts (tens and hundreds of millions of dollars) the Hurricane Protection Office will be handing out over the next four years.

2) This solicitation is being offered out of the Vicksburg office, not the New Orleans office, despite the Hurricane Protection Office's headquartering in New Orleans . This is not the first time we've seen HPO operations taken out of New Orleans District hands and placed under someone else's purview. As I reported previously, at least four Vicksburg purchasing personnel were dispatched to New Orleans from November through the end of January, with an option for a five month extension. Many of the HPO solicitations have had Vicksburg people as their points of contact, including the ones for the floodgate extra pumps (Jack Little), the permanent pump stations at the lakefront (Mario Carrette), the protection of the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal (Karen Golden), and the long delayed solicitation for Orleans Parish pump station discharge line repairs and suction basin cleanouts (Mario Carrette or Missy Arnold). By the by, according to the latest information on that last one, the solicitiation was supposed to go out January 22nd, after a two month delay. It hasn't yet.

You know they're from Vicksburg by their "mvk" email addresses.

3) Finally, can we please put the Corps' personal myth of "urgency" to rest? They're not even asking for these contract employees until April 1. What exactly have they been doing for the last few months, and what will they be doing for the next few?

Corps to Vitter: We'll do our job

Following up to the dust-up between the Corps and, well, rational thought regarding the closure of the MRGO...

Today, this appeared in the Times-Picayune:

Corps agrees to alter MR-GO work plans

Basically, the Corps has decided to honor the letter and spirit of the law when it comes to what was stated in the 4th Katrina supplemental bill regarding funding for the MRGO. For more detailed information on that language, please see the comments attached to my previous post on this topic.

Here's the relevant quote from the article:
"The Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to scrap plans to use most of $75 million added to the agency's New Orleans maintenance budget last year to place rocks and concrete mats on the banks of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet to prevent erosion, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said Tuesday.

Instead, some of the money will be redirected to where Vitter says he intended it to be spent: designing ways to plug the channel to block storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico, corps Deputy Director of Civil Works Steven Stockton confirmed."

It's remarkable that it takes two laws from Congress (the second a clarification of the first due to the obstinancy of the Corps) and a Senatorial meeting with the highest echelons of the Corps to get them moving on what should be obvious: the problems caused by the MRGO need to be addressed immediately for the safety and well being of thousands of citizens of the United States.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

January 27th storm

It rained in New Orleans for most of the day Saturday. It was a relatively light rain, and it was over by about 5 PM. We got between 1.5 and 2 inches.

I drove around between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. Here's what I saw (you can see a map of the pump stations at this previous post):

Station 1: I didn't check which pumps were running, because the Palmetto canal (on the discharge of the station) was only about half full. Were I forced to guess, I'd say there was about 3100 or 4100 cfs going into the canal.

Despite not finding that out, I did get an answer to a question I've had: who is actually doing the bearing replacement work at stations 1, 6, and 19. The $1.1 million contract for supply and installation of those bearings was awarded to IPS of Lousiana in Kenner, LA. From what I could tell about IPS from their website, they would only be supplying the bearings, not installing them. Yesterday, I saw a pickup truck from Conhagen Industries, who also has an office in Kenner. According to the Conhagen website, they do the exact sort of work required for bearing replacements on pumps.

Station 2: Only pumps A & B (550 cfs each) were running. Pumps C & D (1000 cfs each) were idle.

Station 3: Only pumps A & B (550 cfs each) were running. Pumps C, D, & E (1000 cfs each) were idle. The staff gauge at the station showed an elevation of less than one foot in the London Avenue canal.

Station 4: Only pumps 1 and 2 (320 cfs each) were running. Pumps C, D, & E (1000 cfs each) were idle.

I also checked the staff guage at the Mirabeau Ave. bridge over the London Avenue canal. The Mirabeau Ave. bridge is the bridge closest to the weak point in the canal, which is about 4000 feet north of station 3. That gauge also showed less than a foot of elevation.

Looking at that gauge and the adjacent electronic level gauge, along with the spraypainted depth markers on the inside of the canal walls, made me realize how little confidence the Corps has in the London Avenue canal walls. The Safe Water Level of four feet, which is shown on those spraypainted lines (along with depths of five and six feet), corresponds to the top of the levees and the very base of the walls. That is, the Corps doesn't want water even touching the walls of the canal. This is remarkable to think about when one walks along the canal: the walls -which are about ten feet tall - are actually useless.

Other notes:
1) The five eastern pumps at the Orleans Avenue canal remain pulled out. They've now been out of the canal for over four months. Here's the first picture I got of them back in early October:

They remain in the exact same positions.

2) All six western pumps at the 17th Street floodgates (from the original dozen) are out of service for some reason. I noted this in my recent post, but at that time, I could only see the ones on WWL's webcam. My visit out to the site allowed me to see that the elbows atop each of the six pumps are disconnected from the main discharge piping. I don't know why this is.

3) The siphon breakers on the new quartet of pumps on the west side at 17th Street (about which I wrote a bit in my last update) have now been installed. But the main discharge pipe for those pumps remains unfinished.

4) Finally, there was no work happening at any of the three floodgate sites on Saturday in the middle of the afternoon, presumably because it was raining a bit. So much for urgency.


On Friday evening at 6 PM, WWL-TV ran a report about the third meeting of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East (SLFPA-E). One of the two new superlevee boards created since the storm, the SLFPA-E was host to a briefing on the state of the levees from the Corps Friday.

In the report, trusted veteran reporter Bill Capo spoke about the pumps at 17th Street, and included a quote from Colonel Richard Wagenaar, New Orleans District Commander who will be retiring from his position July 20th. Here's the exact quote:

CAPO: By the end of July, Corps spokesman say pumping capacity should reach 7600 cubic feet per second. While still less than the city's huge pumping station, Corps officials don't expect that to cause flooding problems.
WAGENAAR: But when it's operating at maximum capacity - somewhere in the 9000 range - uh, we believe that 7600 would match that and be able to keep up with what the station is putting into the canal.

So the Colonel is saying that if the floodgates drop - in effect turning the 17th Street canal into a huge bathtub - and Station 6 (the "city's huge pumping station" referred to by Capo) is putting 9000 cfs of water into the south end of the canal, 7600 cfs of pumping capacity will be enough at the north end to take that water out and place it into the lake.

This is so many kinds of wrong, I can't even count them. Where exactly is the extra 1400 cfs in this situation going?

- Corps has invented the transporter and is planning to beam the extra water out.
- Corps is planning on a breach and is accounting for it now.
- Corps will install thousands of hair dryers on the top of the canal walls to evaporate the water before it gets to the floodgates.
- The Corps will transform matter into energy to operate the floodgate pumps.
- Who the heck knows?

One of the first things taught in basic fluid mechanics is conservation of mass, also called continuity. That is, the rate at which what you put stuff in one end of the pipe or channel has to equal the rate of stuff coming out the other end. Such a concept is so bedrock that I was shocked at the audacity of the Colonel suggesting its' exact opposite. A quote like that above raises two possibilities:

1) Colonel Wagenaar and the rest of his staff don't understand basic fluid mechanics.
2) The Corps has some supersecret something-or-other that they're not telling us about.

The simple fact is there is not going to be enough pumping capacity at the 17th Street floodgates to match the maximum capacity of Station 6. There will be a 20% shortfall. A worse situation exists on the London Avenue canal, where the Corps plans for extra pumps still leave a 38% gap in pumping capacity when the gates drop.

It is public pronouncements like this that inspire zero confidence in the Corps. And this isn't the first time the Corps has talked through their hat about the basics. Here's two more examples:

Example 1
Last Tuesday, January 23, on WLAE's Road to Recovery, Wagenaar expressed shock at the recent reports that the Corps won't have the extra pumps in by June 1. He claimed that such information has "been out there for a while." (Note: that's an approximate quote.) He seemed to be implying that people shouldn't have been surprised, and that the Corps wasn't actually missing a deadline.

So where would the public have gotten the crazy idea that pumps for hurricane protection would be installed before hurricane season?

Maybe here:

This is a screenshot of the Corps' own floodgate pump capacity webpage, copied today. As you can see, they say the 17th Street capacity will be 7300 on June 1, not the "peak of hurricane season," or the "July/August timeframe," but June 1.

Or this, which is the text on the back of every inundation map the Corps released on July 26, 2006 (inundation maps show how much flooding to expect in New Orleans when the gates drop):

Where the "June 2007 conditions" say in part: "7300 cfs at 17th Street."

So now we're supposed to forget that those documents say "June, 2007," and instead believe they really say "July or August, 2007?" Please.

Example 2
Three weeks ago, also on "Road to Recovery," Colonel Wagenaar (again) expressed more surprise about comments that the Corps had exceeded the Safe Water Level in the London Avenue canal. He said he didn't know where such reports were coming from.

Once again, those reports were coming straight from Colonel Wagenaar's own employees. I spoke with an extremely well placed individual at the Corps' New Orleans District in the first week of January. That individual called me and discussed London Avenue for almost an hour. Among the things that person told me was that the Sewerage & Water Board had exceeded the Safe Water Level more than once with the Corps' permission.

Is it surprising that New Orleanians don't believe the Corps when they speak publicly?

Friday, January 26, 2007


I haven't posted for a while. So let me get you updated on what I've seen around town.

1. Rewinding of pump motors.
I believe this contract is finally finished. I stopped by Station 2 on North Broad a few days ago, and the final pump motor appears to be done. I haven't been by Station 5 in the Lower Ninth Ward, but Bollinger has to be done with the motors in that station by now.

2. Corps takes out pumps from 17th St floodgates.
Within the last two weeks, with no public notice, the Corps has started removing pumps from the 17th St. floodgates. The pumps they are taking out are the 22 or 23 rental pumps that were installed on the deck of the floodgates late in the 2006 hurricane season. You can see them in this old shot from WWL's webcam:

As you can see from this shot taken from WWL's camera today, the engines are gone:

On a side note, notice they are still working on the MWI pumps at the lower right corner of the frame. Those pumps have been pulled and put back repeatedly since their installation last July.

The rental pumps were intended to give an extra bit of pumping capacity beyond that provided by the original dozen MWI 60" pumps installed in the canal. Officially, the rentals provided a total flow of around 1200 cubic feet per second.

The Corps, after installing the original dozen, cast around for extra pumping capacity for a while before they gave Boh Brothers - the prime construction contractor on the site - permission to purchase six additional MWI 60" pumps identical to the first twelve. Two would be installed on the east (Orleans) side of the canal, while the other four would go in on the west (Jefferson) side. The Corps blew numerous deadlines installing these extra six pumps.

The pair on the east side are now installed and appear to be ready to go. However, the quartet on the west side, which were originally envisioned for operation last September, remain unfinished. While the pumps and their engines are installed on a spanking new platform, the pipe into which they discharge is not complete, and the vacuum breakers (those powder blue things on top of the pump discharge pipes) are not yet installed. Even when all of that gets done, there is still testing and commissioning of the pumps and engines, which could take one to two months. It will likely be late March before the four pumps on the west side of the canal are ready.

Each of the 60" pumps can flow about 200 cfs. The Corps plays around with capacity numbers all the time (10 pumps at Orleans Avenue will flow 2200 cfs, or 220 cfs each, while 12 pumps at London Avenue will flow 2800 cfs, or 233 cfs each? That makes no sense). Based on the problems they have had over the months with these pumps, I think 200 cfs is a safe number to run with. Besides, that's exactly the number cited in the very recent Pentair press release for the extra pumps to be provided by Fairbanks-Morse (Pentair optimistically gives credit for 18 pumps, each flowing 200 cfs each, for a total of 3600 cfs).

So what does all this mean? I believe the rental pumps were intended to be there until the six new MWI pumps were ready, since the total flow for the six new pumps is the same as that for the rentals. However, four of those six new pumps are not ready, and won't be for weeks or months. I understand that we are outside hurricane season, but what is the rush to get the rental pumps out of there? What if there are problems with the new pumps?

Also, it means the actual available capacity at 17th Street is 14 x 200, or 2800 cfs, not the 4000 cfs the Corps has been saying.

3) Reeves Electrical Services wins again, and again.
I've written before about how Reeves Electrical Services of Pierre Part, LA has come out of nowhere to start winning bigger and bigger contracts from the Corps. They've recently gotten two more.

As I reported befor, the first is for the $2.6 million installation of the backup 60 cycle generators at Station 6 on the 17th Street Canal. The Corps has never announced anything about this contract except for a tiny mention on page 5 of their December 1st newsletter. It is extremely unclear if this contract was competitively bid. According to the sign at the site, work began on November 17th. At the January 10th meeting of the Jefferson Parish Council, the Corps said the generators would be ready by April 30th.

The second contract will be taking place on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, and is detailed in this brief Times-Picayune article from January 12, 2007. Apparently, RES got a $1.5 million to replace an electric pump with a diesel one.

I encourage you to read my previous post on Reeves, because it details how the Corps uses the Section 8(a) program, which does not require open bids. Other Section 8(a) companies, such as Crown Roofing and IPS of Louisiana, have also been beneficiaries of the Corps' New Orleans office. Note that IPS won the bearing replacement contract for station 1, 6, and 19 through a open bid process, but the Corps has never announced who won the other two bearing replacement contracts. I do know they weren't openly bid.

A list of Louisiana Section 8(a) companies can be found on this SBA spreadsheet (also saved here in case it disappears) starting on row 6194.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Extra floodgate pumps - more details dribble out

Updated 1/18/07, original post date 1/12/07

We've learned some more information about the extra pumps to be installed at the London Avenue and 17th St floodgates. As I've previously written, the London Avenue pumps are being supplied by Patterson Pump. Oddly, after initially putting the press release on their Corporate News webpage, where such things are normally posted, Patterson's parent company (Gorman-Rupp) buried the press release on their investor news webpage, where all the news is about quarterly returns and dividends and such. I don't know why they did that, but I do know they spent a bunch of time on this blog right before it happened.

At the time of my last post, we didn't know who the manufacturer for the 17th St pumps was. Now we do. It's Fairbanks-Morse, a unit of the giant Pentiar pumping conglomerate. Fairbanks-Morse has been in business for over 100 years, and you can find their pumps in service in many industrial facilities and commercial buildings. Fairbanks-Morse issued a press release on Tuesday, which you can find here (or here if it disappears).

Update, 1/18:
Fairbanks-Morse's parent company, Pentair, has issued a press release of its own, available here. It pegs the exact amount of the contract at $22 million. This makes my question below about the total value of the pumps contract more pertinent.
end update

According to the press release, the 11 pumps will each flow a maximum 350 cubic feet per second (cfs). These are much bigger than the MWI pumps out there now, which each flow around 200 or 225 cfs each. Theoretically, this would bring the floodgate pumping capacity up to around 7850 cfs, though the actual number will probably be lower. Remember two things: 1) PS#6 at the foot of the canal has a capacity of 10,000 cfs, 2) The permanent pump station on 17th St., according to the solicitation for the permanent pump stations, is anticipated to have a capacity of 12,500 cfs. Obviously, someone at the Corps screwed up in November/December 2005 when they didn't call for enough pumps. It's nice they're trying to make up for that ginormous blunder now, but it may be too little too late.

That's made crystal clear by this January 8, 2007 article about the extra pumps in New Orleans CityBusiness. The key quote in the article is this one:

"St. Germain said the Corps wants to bring the pumps online in July or August at the peak of hurricane season."

This is how the Corps announces critical two month delays in the deployment of pumping equipment crucial to the survival of New Orleans: By not even bringing up the fact that there is a delay. Their own webpage, last updated on November 8, still shows the pumps ready on June 1. And based on the Corps' track record, August is probably stretching it. I'd guess it'd be most of hurricane season before the extra pumps are running.

According to an email sent by Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Jennifer Sneed, the Corps is telling Jefferson Parish that the pumps will be running by "mid-August." The relevant paragraph from the email is:

"At yesterday's Council Meeting, the Corps updated us on various plans that impact the Hoey's Basin. Colonel Bedey stated that as of today there is 4,000 cfs pumping capacity available at the mouth of the 17th Street Canal. The Corps is scheduled to have 5,200 cfs by June 1st. They also anticipate having roughly 7,700 cfs by mid August [my emphasis]. The Colonel explained the winches for the gate closure structure continue to be installed and are scheduled to be completed and operational by the end of January. He also said the Corps is installing a system that will allow them to remotely operate the pumps and winches."

The remote control system was suposed to be ready for the 2006 storm season.

So how did that delay come about? Well, for one thing, the Corps' "shortened" purchase of the pumps took almost two months, as one can see here. The solicitation was posted November 5th, and after four changes to the bid specifications, the contract award wasn't until December 22nd. Add in the fact that they were already a month behind when they put the solicitation out (with standard delivery times for these pumps and gearboxes, they needed to get stuff on order by the end of October to get running by June 1), and the delay is really not a surprise, and is hard evidence of the Corps' lack of urgency, no matter how much the Corps denies it.

I'm betting that the apparent movement of certain Hurricane Protection Office purchasing functions out of the New Orleans District and into the hands of Vicksburg office personnel also had something to do with it. As I've written about before, all of the most recent HPO solicitations are being handled by Vicksburg folks. Confirmation of at least their presence in New Orleans can be found in this contract award, which shows that Vicksburg is paying to put four of their employees up at a downtown New Orleans condo tower from November 1 to January 30. Interestingly, they got a really good rate, far better than they could have gotten at an extended stay hotel.

There's one small question about the overall contract, which was issued to MR Pittman. The contract is supposedly just for supply of pumps, not installation. In fact, the Citybusiness article says that a design-build contract for installation and pump support platform construction will be issued January 19.

So the MR Pittman contract is just for procurement, not installation, and it totals $52.5 million. According to the Patterson Pump press release, Patterson is being paid $15 million for their pumps. According to the Fairbanks-Morse press release, they're being paid "in excess of $20 million." Let's just assume it's $21 million (Update, 1/18: it's $22 million). That would still leave over $16 million (Update, 1/18: actually, $15 million) going to MR Pittman. That's a lot of money. What is MR Pittman supplying? They are a construction company.

Finally, I have to ask the Corps where all this extra money came from? They are always pleading that they are under very tight restrictions when it comes to transferring money. But, of course, we'll never know, because they refuse to release contracts and bid specifications to the public for "security reasons."

Update, 1/18:
Senator Vitter took note of the delay in the extra pumps and wrote the head of the Corps asking for answers, as reported in yesterday's New Orleans CityBusiness internet update. Let's see if the Corps can meet their own deadline for issuance of the installation contracts for the pumps. That's supposed to happen January 19th, according to the January 8th CityBusiness article.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

December 21st and 29 million reasons to worry

Updated 7/28/07. See below.

It seeming that the storm on December 21, 2006 was a bigger deal than it even seemed at the time. So far, we know:

- the level of the London Avenue canal got within five inches of the Safe Water Level, which is depth of water above which a levee breach could be imminent. Corps of Engineers personnel in station 3 (in a most unofficial, ad hoc role) were preparing to strongly request that the Sewerage and Water Board shut down pumps in station 3 if the level had hit the Safe Water Level at the weakest section of the canal, about 4000 feet north of station 3.

Now, we have heard that none other than Colonel Jeff Bedey himself was in pump station 6 on the 17th St. canal during the December 21st storm. He dropped this bombshell at this past Wednesday's Jefferson Parish Council meeting. Col. Bedey is the head of the Hurricane Protection Office here in New Orleans, and has about 130 people working for him in that office. Theoretically, he is one of the most powerful people in the Corps' New Orleans District, with the power to hand out multimillion dollar contracts, like this $150 million whopper with a remarkably undefined scope. There's some more detail in this article from the Salem News of Salem, MA.

Now Army colonels do not just drop by pump stations during rainstorms out of curiosity or to simply observe operations. He could have been anywhere else that day, and he could have sent someone else to observe. No, he was there for a reason. Based on what we know about London Avenue, it's clear that the reason is concern about the walls of the outfall canals. He was worried the water would get too high on the walls and cause a breach. And when one considers that no one in the Army moves without orders, it's very likely people higher up than him in Vicksburg and at the Washington headquarters of the Corps also had a keen interest in what was happening on December 21. Considering the number of hits I've gotten from people in Corps HQ over the last few days since my London Avenue canal post went up, I don't think I'm wrong.

At this time, I think it's about time to ask a question I've asked before: what happened to the $29 million meant to stabilize the canal walls? Yes, instead of freaking out in the pump stations the Corps guys could have been relaxing at home.

Back in January, '06, when the Corps wrote the Project Information Report that laid out the scope of work and budgeting for the floodgates at the lake, they also included $29 million in "Bank Stabilization" contracts, meant to shore up the walls of all three outfall canals. The reasons for those contracts given in the report are the exact same reasons for Colonel Bedey's worry: without the walls being repaired, the canals can't flow as much water as they did before the storm.

The description of exactly what needed to be done was on page 10, while the budgeting was on page 18. 17th Street canal was to get $6.6 million, Orleans Avenue canal was to get $4.7 million, and London Avenue canal was to get $17.9 million. Presumably, this money was appropriated to the Corps in the third Katrina Supplemental, which funded all of the post-Katrina emergency levee and flood protection system repairs, including the construction of the floodgates. But the Bank Stabilization contracts never happened. What happened to the money? And if those contracts had been performed, would we be much safer now than we are?

I don't have the answer to the first one, but the Corps does. But the answer to the second one is unquestionably yes. We would not have insanely low levels of water allowed in these canals - levels which threaten the pumping capacity of pump stations which have performed admirably for over a century in keeping this city dry. Instead, pump operators would be able to pump as hard as they wanted for as long as they wanted.

So now we have the Corps - including senior military and engineering officials - doing who knows what (apparently without written procedures or a legal framework for their presence) in locally controlled and funded pump stations during every rainstorm, watching level gauge readouts and fretting about whether the walls will give again, this time just from the rain. Why have they not simply fixed the problem?

[Update 7/28/07]
See my June 11, 2007 post, "Testing, testing," for the most up to date information on the London Avenue canal testing. The Engineering News-Record articles linked there are far better than the Times-Picayune's pathetic coverage. [end update]

Vitter to Corps: Do your job

Updated 1/15/07. See below.

I've kept track of the passionate fallout to a boneheaded letter to the Times-Picayune's editors from a Corps of Engineers Public Affairs Officer, Vic Harris, at this post, updating it with each subsequent letter the paper has printed. You can catch up there.

Today, U.S. Senator David Vitter got his chance to chime in on the "controversy," which really appears to be simply inexplicable intransigence on the Corps' part to shut MR-GO, the Corps-constructed channel primarily blamed for much of the flooding seen in St. Bernard Parish during Katrina. I'm going to print his letter in its entirety, because it's really good.

But first, let me remind you what Mr. Harris said about the Senator in his letter:
"The Times-Picayune cravenly associated itself with Sen. David Vitter's opinion that appropriations enacted by Congress provided the corps funding and authority to close MR-GO. The $75 million is for continual operations, with a small part going to funding research on the MR-GO closure options -- not the authority to close."

Here's what Senator Vitter wrote in response:

Corps should quit inventing excuses, do its job
Saturday, January 13, 2007
"Re: "Experts, big computer clear MR-GO, corps says," Your Opinions, Dec. 22.

Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Vic Harris' letter to the editor suggests that the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet's role in flooding southeast Louisiana was "insignificant." I join experts and millions of Louisiana citizens in expressing my utter disbelief at this claim.

Mr. Harris points out that the "world's fourth-largest supercomputer" was used to determine the minimal role of the MR-GO. While I commend the corps for tapping this impressive resource, any computer's answer is only as good as the question you ask it.

The question Mr. Harris asked focuses on a straw man -- the claim that MR-GO was an exclusive conduit for storm surge.

What he ignores is the leading role MR-GO has played in destroying much of our area's wetlands buffer over the past decades.

It doesn't take a supercomputer, only a trip to St. Bernard Parish, to understand the channel's destruction of tens of thousands of acres of coastal wetlands and what that produced in Katrina -- devastating storm surge reaching heavily populated areas.

Mr. Harris's contention that the corps does not have the authority to begin closure of MR-GO and stop this destruction is perhaps even more outrageous and worrisome.

The corps has the authority to begin closure now.

The law I passed last summer makes this perfectly clear, specifically authorizing structures to block storm surge and build wetlands.

It is now 16 months since Hurricane Katrina -- surely time for the agency to approach challenges with a can-do attitude rather than constantly inventing obstacles to progress.

I am meeting with the corps' leadership next week, and my message will be clear: I have worked to provide nearly $9 billion to the Corps of Engineers and to eliminate every real and perceived legal obstacle for it to give us solid hurricane, coastal and flood protection.

So just do it, starting with closing MR-GO.

David Vitter
U.S. Senator

You can view details of the specific legislative language to which Senator Vitter is referring in the Comments to this post

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Risk of breach on London Avenue canal far higher than we've been led to believe

Updated 6/1/07, see below
Also updated 7/28/07, see bottom of post

The Corps of Engineers knows the exact location of the weakest area of the levees and walls along the London Avenue Canal. Their analysis of that weakness shows that the canal depth cannot exceed four feet above sea level without risking a breach of the canal walls and levees. That depth is known as the Safe Water Level, and the four foot figure was arrived at in early September. The initial figure released earlier in summer, 2006 was five feet.

The Corps, when they spoke about the floodgates during 2006, said they would only be closed upon the approach of a major tropical storm surge which could exceed the safe water level. They also said that such conditions had only occurred three times in the last 45 years (Hurricane Juan in 1985, Tropical Storm Isidore in 2002, and Katrina in 2005). Never was simple pumping of rainfall mentioned as a possibility which could cause the canal depth to exceed the safe water level.

However, that possibility has become reality, with the canal depth reaching 3.6 feet at the weak section of the canal during the December 21, 2006 storm, as well as other unspecified instances during the fall and winter when the four foot safe water level has possibly been exceeded in other sections of the canal. Further investigation has uncovered the fact that the Corps is extremely concerned about normal rainfall pumping - combined with only a minor increase in the level of Lake Pontchartrain from high tides or a stiff north wind - causing the London Avenue canal safe water level to be exceeded, bringing about the strong possibility of a canal breach without the presence of a tropical storm.

Besides the very serious consequences of a canal breach, there are also problems which arise should the Corps try to prevent the topping of the safe water level during a rainstorm. They can do so through one of two means: a) close the floodgates and activate the temporary pumps installed at the gates, or b) ask the Sewerage & Water Board to turn off pumps in the permanent pump stations which feed the London Avenue canal.

In the case of option (a), pumping capacity would drop approximately 64% because there are not enough pumps at the floodgates to keep up with the pumps in the stations. This would cause flooding in the neighborhoods served by the pump stations. In the case of option (b), neighborhood flooding would also result, because pumps draining those neighborhoods would be turned off.

Since September, the Corps has not moved to make emergency repairs to the weak section of the walls and levees on the London Avenue canal, despite knowing the exact location and the obvious consequences to leaving the weakened section exposed to repeated flows of water. Doing so would involve driving a 40 or 60 foot long sheet pile coffer dam around the weak section, identical to what was done around the breached areas of the canals after Katrina. Other, less critical sections of hurricane protection levee around the New Orleans area have been shored up using emergency funding in the last 16 months.

Instead, the Corps is stationing senior engineering personnel in the pump stations during every rainstorm to monitor the rise in canal depth. This has happened as recently as the night of January 4, 2007. Presumably, they are also preparing to close the gates during every rainstorm. The engineers are acting in an ad hoc "partnership" with Sewerage & Water Board drainage department personnel to keep the canal depth from rising above the safe water level.

There are no written procedures for this ad hoc partnership outside of hurricane season. There is no written legal framework either. The only procedure, the Floodgates Operating Manual, lays out rigorous, extensive plans which anticipate five days of tropical storm warnings before the time when the gates must be closed. Use of the Floodgates Operating Manual depends on the extra time inherent in the behavior of tropical storms. It is rare that normal rainstorms can be accurately predicted five days in advance. And during summer in New Orleans, severe, heavy rainstorms can bubble up with no warning at all. Closure of the floodgates and full startup and operation of the floodgate pumps would take a number of hours, with no guarantee that the pumps will work.

Much of the same reasoning applies to the 17th Street canal, except that the safe water level is six feet there. In general, it is less likely for 17th St. to reach six feet than for London Ave. to reach four feet.

In sum, the area around the London Avenue canal, as well as those areas drained by the canal, are at a much higher risk for flooding outside of hurricane season than has been previously discussed by various public officials. And while Corps officials express deep concern about the current problems at the canal, and have expressed strong intentions to get the safe water level higher, they have yet to move to actually solve the problems. Their previous solution - the floodgates and temporary pumps - did not account for rainfall pumping without storm surge exceeding the safe water level. The walls of the canal remain a very serious problem outside of hurricane season.

The facts:
The Safe Water Level (SWL) on the London Avenue Canal is 4 feet above sea level. This is the level above which the Corps of Engineers says the walls and levees are in danger of imminent breaching. The SWL applies along the entire length of the canal. The Corps first announced the four foot level in an interview with Col. Richard Wagenaar on the WLAE program "Road to Recovery" on September 7, 2006. It was also mentioned in a September 12, 2006 Times-Picayune article. I have independently confirmed it currently sits at 4 feet. This is a very low water level, in some cases not even touching the base of the canal walls.

There are five or six new electronic level sensors installed along the canal, which are connected via a SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) system to allow for real-time remote monitoring of the canal depth. The readouts from these level sensors (there are also six sensors on the 17th St canal and four on the Orleans Avenue canal) are available to the Corps at their Emergency Operations Center, as well as in a computer terminal in Drainage Pump Station 3 at the southern end of the canal. Terminals are also placed in Station 7 (Orleans Avenue canal) and Station 6 (17th St canal).

On December 21, 2006, the level at one location in the canal reached 3.6 feet, 5 inches less than the safe water level (I had earlier reported it as 3.4 feet, but that was incorrect.).

That one location is the one the Corps has identified as the most vulnerable point, and is governing the setting of the safe water level at four feet. It is located approximately 4000 feet from Drainage Pumping Station 3, though I don't know which side of the canal it is on. 4000 feet from Station 3 is located behind the tennis courts at Dillard University and the forested area south of Gregory Junior High, as shown on this map. The actual point may be slightly north or south of there.

[Update, 6/1/06
While it is still possible this is the location of the weakest point on the canal, it is not where the Corps will be conducting their testing to determine the wall's strength. That location, as noted in this post, is just south of the Robert E. Lee bridge, a little over a mile north of the Dillard University location.]

The Corps has been dispatching senior engineering staff to New Orleans pump stations during every rainstorm, including the one this past Thursday night in which we received between one and two inches. They are doing so to ensure that canals do not exceed their SWL's. The safe water level at 17th Street is six feet and at Orleans Avenue it is eight feet. Orleans Avenue is extremely unlikely to reach eight feet. 17th Street could reach six feet with a lot of rainfall being pumped out and a somewhat larger than average tide on Lake Pontchartrain, though that is less likely than London Avenue reaching four feet.

A depth of four feet in London Avenue can easly be reached with only a moderate rainstorm and a stiff northern wind, or even just high tide in Lake Pontchartrain. There is no need for storm surge from a tropical storm. This means the threat for exceeding the safe water level is one that exists throughout the year, not just during hurricane season.

The safe water level at London Avenue has possibly already been exceeded in past rainstorms this fall and winter, as Corps personnel have authorized S&WB pump station personnel to continue pumping despite exceeding the level.

There is no specific written procedure dealing with non-tropical storms and the threat of exceeding the safe water level simply by pumping out rainfall. However, the Floodgates Operating Manual, which is being used in lieu of a written procedure, certainly makes clear that the floodgates are to be closed when the safe water level is expected to be exceeded. Closure of the floodgates will constrain the stormwater drainage capacity to that of the pumps at the floodgates.

The total capacity of S&WB pump stations 3 and 4, which both discharge to the London Avenue canal, is 7740 cubic feet per second (cfs). Station 3 has a capacity of 4100 cfs (pumps A & B = 550 cfs each, pumps C, D, & E = 1000 cfs each); Station 4 has a capacity of 3640 cfs (pumps 1 & 2 = 320 cfs each, pumps C, D, & E = 1000 cfs each).

The total capacity of the pumps at the London Avenue floodgates is 2800 cfs, though it may be even less when one considers they may be run at slower speeds to prevent vibration problems. That is 36% of the current pumping capacity with the gates up.

There is no legal framework for what is taking place currently, i.e. the Corps being in the pump stations during rainstorms outside of hurricane season and absent a tropical storm threat. In other words, the delineation of responsibilities between the Sewerage & Water Board and the Corps has not been put down in print. Were a breach to develop in the London Avenue canal walls due to exceeding the safe water level without the gates dropping, it is unclear who would be responsible. On the flip side, were flooding to happen in the city because S&WB pumps were turned off to keep the canal level below the SWL, it is also unclear who would be responsible.

When the Corps released their inundation maps July 26, 2006, showing the effect of varying degrees of rainfall when the floodgates are closed, the following quote was included in the accompanying press release:
Dan Hitchings, director of the Corps’ Task Force Hope, points out that outfall gates will be closed only during a tropical storm event that would cause a five-foot or more storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain. Since 1959, storm surges exceeding five feet have been recorded three times: in 1985 during Hurricane Juan; in 2002 during Hurricane Isidore, and in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. "One should not assume that the gates will be closed at all during this hurricane season," Hitchings said. "Certainly London Avenue and 17th Street Canals will be closed if we have a storm headed at us that will cause a five-foot or more storm surge."

At the time of that quote, the SWL was five feet. Since then the SWL's have been adjusted to four feet at London Avenue and six feet at 17th Street. However, no similar statements have been issued by the Corps in the intervening time to clarify to the public that the chances of gate closure on London Avenue (and accompanying drop in pumpng capacity) are far, far higher than the public was initially led to believe.

The Corps really does want to raise the SWL on the London Avenue canal, because it is so low. To that end, there are plans (or perhaps just discussions) to drive a sheet piling coffer dam around the vulnerable location, pump the area inside the dam dry, and then pump in varying heights of water to determine the exact safe water level. The wall and levee would be closely monitored for movement or damage. Hopefully, this will be done very soon, even though the aim would appear to be further analysis rather than repair.

[Update, 6/1/07
See the 6/1/07 note above regarding testing of the walls]

Regular meetings between the Corps, the S&WB, and Jefferson Parish officials, at which issues such as those above are discussed, do not have representation by the Orleans Levee District, the agency responsible for the maintenance of the canal walls.

[Update 7/28/07]
See my June 11, 2007 post, "Testing, testing," for the most up to date information on the London Avenue canal testing. The Engineering News-Record articles linked there are far better than the Times-Picayune's pathetic coverage. [end update]

Thursday, January 04, 2007

What is a ten year storm?

Over the past few weeks, I've written a lot about "ten year storms," but I haven't really explained what that means.

The term's explanation can be found in National Weather Service Technical Paper 40, found here. You'll need the DjVu Browser Plug-in to view the paper. Realize I'm no expert in this stuff, so you may want to read the entire paper for further perspective.

A "ten year" storm refers to the frequency at which a particular amount of rainfall in a given duration (from 30 minutes to 24 hours) is expected to "return," on average. There are also "one year storms," "two year storms," and of course, "hundred year storms."

TP-40 has a long introductory section about how the data was collected and organized, but the meat of the paper is the frequency-duration maps.

You can browse through the various maps in TP-40 to see for yourself what the various storms are supposed to drop here in New Orleans. For example, the 12/21/06 storm, which dropped about 6 or 7 inches in about 12 hours. This would appear to qualify it as a ten year storm over the 12 hour duration.

For reference, here are the rainfall amounts for various durations at the ten year frequency. Many drainage systems - due to economics - are designed for ten year storms.

Ten year storms in New Orleans:
30 minutes: 2.6 to 2.8 inches
1 hour: 3.2 to 3.6 inches
2 hour: 4 to 4.5 inches
3 hour: 4.5 to 5 inches
6 hour: 6 to 6.5 inches
12 hour: 7 to 8 inches
24 hour: approx 9 inches

If we receive rainfall over any of these amounts in each of these duration periods, then we're into a storm bigger than the typical drainage system can handle. Of course, there are local variations in drainage capacities; the typical quote from local officials is that their system can handle an inch in the first hour and half an inch each hour after that. Like I said, I'm no expert, so I don't know how to explain the discrepancy.

But I can speculate. I bet the inch an hour comes from the 6 hour duration and the 1/2 inch an hour comes from the 12 hour duration. If one were to design for the "instantaneous" ten-year shot of rain (3.2 to 3.6 inches in a single hour), the system would probably be so big as to be unaffordable, and possibly wouldn't work very well for smaller storms.

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