Fix the pumps

Monday, May 07, 2007

It's May in New Orleans - that means rain

[Updated 5/12/07 & 7/28/07]

[For the latest on London Avenue canal testing, see my June 11, 2007 post, "Testing, testing." It has been updated quite often.]

We had a downpour in New Orleans on Friday, May 4. During the storm, I went out to the London Ave canal around 1:30 or 2 PM. The safe water level (SWL) in London is 4 feet above lake level. Whenever there is a major or minor rainstorm, the place to check for problems west of the Industrial Canal is along London Avenue, since its SWL is so low, and can be exceeded with a heavy rain combined with a wind out of the north. We had both of those circumstances on Friday.

I looked at three points along the canal.

At Pumping Station 3, the staff gauge read 4.5 feet at the discharge basin. At the time I was there, all five major pumps (A & B at 550 cfs each and C, D, & E at 1000 cfs each) were running. The Corps has given the Sewerage & Water Board special dispensation to let water rise to five feet in the pump station discharge basin.

At the Mirabeau Avenue bridge, just north of the weakest area of the canal walls [Correction, 6/1/07: I got the location of the load test wrong. I assume the load test location is the weakest section, but that's not necessarily the case. See the detailed correction, with the load test location, here.] the staff gauge read 4 feet and the water was rising.

At the Leon C Simon bridge, just south of the floodgates, the staff gauge read approximately 3 feet. The floodgates were all up.

The staff gauges are basically yardsticks stuck in the mud of the canal. It's unknown how reliably they measure depth since they may have subsided over the years (though based on my observations and the timeline reported by the media, it's looking like they're pretty close). The safe water level is officially measured based on the new automated sensor system installed under the Corps' contract with Prime Controls of Texas. There are five or six depth sensors along London Avenue (just as there are sensors along the other two outfall canals), all of which are tied into the SCADA system set up to monitor the pumps at the floodgates. If you've driven across any of the outfall canals, you've seen the solar panels sticking up from inside the walls. Those are the locations of the level gauges. Their output can be seen on computer terminals in pump stations 3 (London Avenue canal), 7 (Orleans Avenue canal), and 6 (17th St canal), as well as in the Corps' building on Leake Ave.

As we found out later on May 4, (through some pretty confused reporting from WWL-TV and the Times-Picayune), at least one pump was turned off at PS#3 as a result of exceeding the SWL of four feet. The level got to 4.3 feet at the sensor across from Dillard University (roughly described by the Corps - via WWL - as "near Harrison Avenue," even though Harrison actually doesn't cross the canal) before the pump shutdown. This came as no surprise to me. It must have happened right after I left PS#3 around 2 PM.

We also found out that the Sewerage & Water Board lost 25 cycle power for somewhere between a few minutes and 40 minutes (the reporting was pretty cruddy on this), when a natural gas compressor at their 25 cycle power plant went down and they had to switch to diesel backups to get power back on line. About 60% of the S&WB pumping capacity across the city runs on 25 cycle power, so this was a big deal.

What a mess.

Update, 5/12/07:
The Times-Picayune's Michelle Krupa sorted out the whole mess in an article today. She did a good job giving details of the 25 Hz shutdown on May 4, as well as giving tons of background on how fragile the S&WB power system really is.
[end update]

I'd like to focus my comments on London Avenue, a topic I've been hammering on for over six months now.

The Corps New Orleans District keeps shrugging off permanent pumping capacity decreases along London Avenue (which drains a huge area that includes the French Quarter) as no big deal. The first couple of times the canal depth either got close (December 21, 2006) or exceeded (December 30, 2006) the SWL, I was the one that broke the news because the New Orleans District didn't have the guts to admit what happened, even when they were given the opportunity to do so in an open, public forum (New Orleans City Council Public Works Committee hearing of January 8, 2007).

I guess they got tired of having their dirty little secrets exposed. So this time they decided to get out ahead of the story, but not without some typical, mendacious spin. Check out this quote from resident Corps spokesbot Vic Harris in an AP article about Friday's rain:
"Now everything is copacetic," Harris said. "This is not an uncommon thing. We make those adjustments commonly when the water goes up."

First off, the Corps doesn't make the "adjustments," the Sewerage & Water Board does. Secondly, the only reason the S&WB has to do this is because the New Orleans District hasn't done any-damn-thing to address the weakened walls along London Avenue. Sure, they have an idiotic plan to do "testing" at the weakest section of eastern canal wall south of Mirabeau Avenue, but we've been hearing about testing for literally months, and nothing has happened. And thirdly, it is a very uncommon thing to have infrastructure and personnel that have performed wonderfully for nearly a century suddenly told to stop working because another organization can't get its act together. I don't appreciate having my local tax dollars, which fund the S&WB, wasted by the Corps because they can't fix their own blatant mistakes.

The latest information we've received about the testing came courtesy of the T-P on April 20th, when the paper decided to do some investigative reporting by ... having a reporter attend a meeting where all the details of the testing plan were spoken about at length. The article (as with anything really important about the Corps other than cutting down trees, which gets front page coverage) was buried inside the local section.

That article mentioned that the plan called for a 50 day schedule. On the day the article appeared, we were already smack in the middle of rainy season, and less than fifty days from the beginning of hurricane season. Now we're even closer, and still nothing has been done. An earlier article quoted the Corps as trying to pin the blame for delays on the S&WB and the East Bank levee board for not giving rights of entry. The S&WB has already given the Corps the R.O.E. The East Bank levee board has not (to the best of my knowledge). However, the East Bank levee board's objection is not to the idea of isolating the weak section, but to inadequacies in the Corps' testing plan. NO ONE is against driving sheet piles to isolate the weak section, and the New Orleans District needs to stop playing games by insisting on their stupid testing as a condition for blocking off the most dangerous section of levee in the city west of the Industrial Canal.

Why are they doing this silly testing instead of something a little more comprehensive or common sense? Since the Times-Picayune reporter didn't ask the question on April 19th (or any other day for the last nine months since the four foot SWL was announced for London Avenue), I am forced to guess the New Orleans District doesn't have the money to do anything else, and they suspect that major repairs are necessary along the entire length of the London Avenue canal. They might be using this testing as justification for more funds (many more funds) from Congress. This might or might not be backed up by this quote from the T-P's confused coverage of Friday's storm:
"The corps hopes to eventually raise the limit on the London canal about 2 feet, but first must conduct tests of the walls by filling a portion of the canal and then the entire canal with water. Those tests have not been scheduled."

It's impossible to tell if the T-P really means that there will be whole-canal testing, or if it was just a writer not knowing the facts. But considering that the subheadline of the article was blatantly wrong, I tend toward the latter.

[Updated 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]

The subhed was wrong? Yes. Here's the headline:
DOWNPOUR
New pumps fail a major test as a strong storm knocks out power and downs trees, but Jazzfest takes it all in stride

There were no "new" pumps involved in Friday's storm. I can only assume that someone very clueless threw the word "new" in there because of the recent AP coverage of the floodgate pumps. I tried to call a correction into the T-P newsroom three times on Saturday, but no one picked up. I guess there was no news on Saturday.

But on the point about the floodgate pumps, let me make this very clear to the Times-Picayune, local video editors at our TV stations, and everyone else in the media:

THE FLOODGATE PUMPS WILL ONLY BE TURNED ON WHEN THE GATES DROP DURING A TROPICAL EVENT.

So when the story is about a non-tropical rainstorm (as it was on Friday), please stop showing archive footage of the floodgate pumps and stop mentioning them as if they play a role in non-tropical systems. This is a basic fact that the local electronic media seem to be incapable of grasping. I constantly see chyron graphics over anchors' shoulders - including this past Friday, Saturday, and Sunday - showing the floodgate pumps whenever there is a drainage story. Such sloppiness only serves to confuse the public and obscure the very real problems we will face when a real tropical storm approaches.

Anyway... my point - other than frustration with local reporting - is that the Corps New Orleans District continues to delay fixing the London Avenue canal walls for what can only be described as insane reasons. We've already had New Orleans' pumps in PS#3 turned off twice (that we know of), and have been close a third time. How much more of this idiocy do we have to tolerate? Do they really, really want a levee breach? Just drive the damn sheet piling, and fiddle with the testing or whatever later. For God's sake, it's not hard.

By the way, repairs on the 17th St canal, meant to bolster the east walls (read the article, it sounds like more than just bolstering) also seem to be delayed. I've watched that section of canal every day, and I've seen no progress at all. I'd be very surprised to see that work done before June 1. So much for urgency.

4 Comments:

  • Could new pumps have referred to new replacement Sewerage And Water Board pumps in the pumping station?

    What can't the readouts of these water level sensors be made publicaly available in real time, via the internet, like traffic cameras?

    By Blogger mominem, at May 08, 2007 9:57 AM  

  • I've learned never to trust any person who uses the word "copacetic."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 09, 2007 6:45 PM  

  • I like the idea of Pump Cam ! Or Canal Cam . . .

    By Blogger Laureen, at May 10, 2007 12:36 AM  

  • Nagin said about the Jefferson Parish request to monitor pumping something like "it would not benefit the city" so why would they put pump info on the net. I think it is a great idea, I just don't see the corp or city doing it, especially since it would document the pump failure and prove useful against them in court. Same reason pumps will only be turned on during a large storm - don't want to prove the critics are right when they fail!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at May 12, 2007 12:25 AM  

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