Fix the pumps

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Pumps shut down because of weak levees on London Ave canal Dec. 30

Updated February 11th. Originally posted February 5, 2007. See below.
Also updated 7/28/07. See bottom of post.

Earlier this week, after speaking with multiple extremely reliable sources, I learned the following jaw-dropping news...

During the December 30, 2006 rainstorm in New Orleans, one of the very large 1000 cubic feet per second (cfs) pumps was shut down at Drainage Pumping Station 3 on the London Avenue canal for approximately thirty minutes. This reduced the pumping capacity at the station by nearly 25%. The reason for this was that the depth in the London Avenue canal - specifically the depth at its weakest section just south of the Mirabeau Avenue bridge - was too close to the Safe Water Level of four feet. Therefore, a pump had to be turned off in Station 3 to keep the water from rising any further.

Specifically, near the end of the December 30th storm, which was in the evening, when all the pumps were running at Station 3, the level in the weakened canal section (also known as a "reach") rose to 4 feet, 4 inches (Update: this number is according to the Times-Picayunes' February 8, 2007 article). The Sewerage & Water Board then called Jim St. Germain, the Corps' pumping guy. Mr. St. Germain came out to Station 3, agreed that the Safe Water Level was equalled or exceeded, and recommended the shutdown of at least one of the station's pumps. One of the large 1000 cfs pumps was shut down (there are three 1000 cfs units in station 3) for about a half hour, and the level in the canal dropped far enough that the pump could be turned back on.

Incidentally, this marks the second time in a two week span that the 4 foot Safe Water Level in the London Avenue canal was approached or exceeded.

This is shocking. This is huge. It means that my concerns about permanent reductions in New Orleans' pumping capacity due to weakened canal levees and walls are legitimate, and that those worries have already been realized at least once already. The true rainy season in New Orleans (outside of hurricane season) doesn't start until April and lasts for over two months.

What it also means is that personnel in the Corps' New Orleans District have failed to report this information publicly, even when given the explicit opportunity to do so on at least two different occasions when they have been asked directly about the strength of the London Avenue canal walls in public forums.

1) On January 8th, 2007, Corps senior project manager Jim St. Germain and project manager Daniel Bolinger appeared before the New Orleans City Council's Public Works Committee to speak about drainage matters. Mr. St. Germain was asked by Councilperson Stacy Head about the then-recent revelations that water depth had reached 3.6 feet in the London Avenue canal during the December 21, 2006 storm. He did not mention the pumping shutdown on December 30, despite his presence in the pump station that evening. I have the entire January 8th hearing on tape.

2) On January 26th, 2007, senior members of the Corps' New Orleans District office and the Hurricane Protection Office appeared before the board of the newly constituted Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. Those individuals included Colonel Richard Wagenaar (commander of the New Orleans District) and Colonel Jeff Bedey (head of the Hurricane Protection Office). When asked directly by the board about the London Avenue canal walls, they did not mention the December 30th pumping shutdown. They said they were aware of the problem and were working on it. Their slide presentation from the meeting says only this about the London Avenue canal, "Future tests may raise elevation."

These lies of omission have gotten to be too much. Citizens of New Orleans are now suffering directly for the Corps' inaction in attending to the weak canal walls and levees. On December 30th, it was 30 minutes. How long will the pumping shutdown be the next time? How long must New Orleans be trampled by all the kings' horses and all the kings' men before enough is enough?

I contacted the Corps for comment before posting this. They didn't reply.

Update, 2/11/07
As I mentioned above, the Times-Picayune caught up with this story three days after this post appeared. Their article had some of the information I had above, along with some very bland, uninformative reassurances from Jim St. Germain:

"In addition, St. Germain said the corps already has a private contractor working to determine whether 4 feet remains an appropriate safe water level in London Avenue Canal, which runs through the 7th Ward from Gentilly to the Lakefront.

And even before the Dec. 30 event, he said, the corps was looking at ways to bolster the walls so the canal could safely hold more water, in the event the level cannot be raised above 4 feet."

How long will they look before they finally do something? This attitude is exactly what rankles people when the Corps claims they have the same urgency to act as all the citizens of this imperiled city. Frankly, we've been hearing this same claptrap about plans for the London Avenue canal for five months now. On the September 7, 2006 edition of WLAE's "Road to Recovery," Colonel Wagenaar said almost the same thing as Jim St. Germain said above.

On that evening, Col. Wagenaar talked about how the Safe Water Level on London Avenue was to drop to four feet, and that the Corps was looking at things to do to raise the level, including reinforcing the walls or lining the interior banks of the canal. I posted that information to a number of New Orleans Yahoo discussion groups the next day. You can see my post to the Gentilly_after_Katrina group here.

The loss of pumping capacity due to the Corps' inaction has been demonstrated. The time for study is now over, period. It's time to get off the pot and do something.

[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]

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