Fix the pumps

Friday, June 08, 2007

Bombshell

Updated 6/8/07 and 6/9/07, see bottom of post

The Corps internal investigation into the floodgate pumps is out. Big surprise, it comes on a Friday afternoon. But let's move past that bit of PR manipulation... The report is stunning in its breadth and depth. Things are way worse than I knew.

First off, I have to applaud General Crear (of the Corps Mississippi Valley District) for convening this team and allowing them to go as far as they did. The amount of crap this investigation uncovered is breathtaking. I know a lot of people don't like the Corps investigating themselves, but when put up against the GAO report, there's no comparison. It appears the GAO report was a total waste of time, and is pretty much useless in the scheme of things. Were I in Landrieu's office, I'd be calling on the GAO Inspector General to look into how an investigation that had to have looked at the same information the Corps did could have come up with such radically different (and obviously wrong) conclusions. We can only hope they now go back and expand their investigation, or maybe the FBI will look into things...

I never would have guessed that of the two investigations, the Corps internal one would be the one with the most shocking dirt. But that's simply the truth. The Corps independent investigative team - as well as Ms. Garzino and some of the Jacksonville District QA's and probably some others for who we'll never know names - have really tried to do the right thing here, and I salute all of them for it. This can't have been easy.

Frankly, it's easy for me to sit back and lob rhetorical bombs at the Corps and pat myself on the back (even if my neighborhood would suffer some of the worst consequences when the pumps fail). It's a lot harder to uncover this stuff from the inside, and to have to confront the fact that people to whom so much has been entrusted appear to be massively incompetent and corrupt. I've been on a few internal forensic investigations in my time. It's gut-wrenching stuff, but it is necessary, especially in this case. In fact, this case screamed for it. The folks involved in this effort deserve a ton of credit.

However, I must also take General Crear to task, because his cover letter doesn't really match the actual words in the report. He downplays the deeply, deeply serious findings on both the technical and commercial side of things. Honestly, one must look at his cover letter with a jaundiced eye, because the text of the report is very critical, but his cover memo is not. It reads more like a press release, and it even seems to contradict the report in one key respect. More about that below.

So on to my initial impressions...

1) Colonel Bedey, Jim St. Germain, and Dan Bradley have been lying to us in New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, all of the media (local and national), and the entire nation for a year, right up to and including Bedey's assurances during General Van Antwerp's "Truth & Honesty" tour last Thursday. There is a critical fix (as in, the pumps could fail without it) that needs to be applied to the drive units. The New Orleans Corps has known about it and has not performed that fix since June of 2006! I don't see how these men can keep their jobs.

2) That critical fix involves raising the hydraulic reservoirs on all 34 drive skids so that hydraulic fluid flows into the Denison hydraulic pumps without introducing air. Air is deadly to these pumps (a ton of pages in Denison's troubleshooting manual is devoted to just such problems). As a reminder, the Denison hydraulic pumps - which are supposed to raise the pressure of the hydraulic fluid to 3000 psi or more - were one of the centers of gravity that Ms. Maria Garzino was identifying as seriously flawed in her memo from May, 2006. They make numerous appearances throughout the shop inspection records as well. They were failing left and right during the factory testing.

What this report shows is that the Corps (specifically Jim St. Germain and Dan Bradley) were keenly aware of the fix as early as May, 2006, and have done nothing to implement it. There's actually a change order to do the work that's been in place since July, and it remains unfulfilled! It is a strong possibility that those Denison pumps remain at risk for failure, since the flooded suction fix has not been implemented. A temporary fix is in place (which I'm sure Colonel Bedey will try to hang his hat on), but the internal investigators eviscerate its effectiveness:

"The flooded suction intakes have only been accomplished on the new additional contracted 6 pumps, the original contracted 34 pumps have not been revised to add the flooded suction intake as was agreed upon to be revised in June 2006. MWI has only provided a vacuum type check valve for priming the suction to the Denison Hydraulic Pumps. This is only a fa├žade in addressing the real issue and requires the operation of vacuum equipment to prime the hydraulic pumps. If the vacuum is not drawn properly, then the pumps will aerate and create irreversible damage to the components of the pumps. The bilateral contract modification to change the intakes to a flooded suction at no cost to the Government has been in place since 12 July 2006 and has not been accomplished as of this date on any of the original 34 pumps."

Yeah, that's right. MWI and the Corps were so aware of the problem that they implemented it on the six extra pumps at 17th Street, but never bothered to retrofit the other 34, leaving them in the same danger of failure that they've been in since they left the factory.

So according to the report (dated May 11, 2007), this flooded suction inlet work has yet to happen. Oddly, General Crear's cover letter (dated June 4, 2007, or four days ago) says the following:

"...Work is currently underway to modify the plumbing so that the hydraulic pumps can never experience a 'dry start up condition'"

Either way, the work has waited for over a year. Why should we trust them? They lied to us for a year by not even mentioning a critical flaw in the pumping systems, let along not mentioning they weren't implementing their own agreed-upon fix.

I'd like to mention a couple of other things about Crear's cover letter. The report itself mentions the following ten problems on the technical side of things:

1) Lack of flooded suction inlet on Denison pumps

2) Unreliable hydraulic piping

3) Lack of automatic clutch on drive units (a clutch would allow for true unloaded starting)

4) There are still welds that need to be checked (only critical ones have been fixed, and it was at government expense)

5) Lack of confidence in flange bolts (the flanges might not be able to hold the weight of the pumps)

6) Inlet strainers should be removed on drive units

7) Installation of hydraulic cones at London Avenue & Orleans Avenue

8) Lack of hydraulic monitoring device on drive units

9) The flowmeters are unreliable

10) MWI still hasn't supplied certified information, over a year after the scheduled end of their contract.

General Crear, in his cover letter, only mentions TWO of these ten items (flooded suction inlets and welds), and even then in a tangential fashion. He gives absolutely no indication that the remaining eight recommendations will be implemented, or even if they will be acknowledged as problems.

In fact, other than his cryptic mention of work on the drive unit "plumbing," the only action he says he will implement is formation of a team to bring the contract file up to date (as if the contracting improprieties enumerated in the report are simple clerical errors, not misappropriation of millions of dollars). No other actual actions are mentioned in his letter. He even has the gall to say the pumps "are working well." I doubt it.

Let me put my doubt about that this way: if you were in the Tour de France, a grueling 21 day, 2000 mile race, would you consider a brief toodle around the Champs Elysses the day before the race enough of a test for your body and your bike? No. You'd train over the actual course for months beforehand, maybe even climb L'Alpe D'huez a couple of times. Well, the 45 minute pump tests the New Orleans District has run are the equivalent of that toodle around the Champs Elysses. We still have no idea how they will perform in Hurricane L'Alpe D'Huez. If the investigative report is any indication, I'd say the answer is "not good."

By the way, the rusty pipes come in for it too in this report. The report basically says they can't be trusted and need to be seriously examined from stem to stern. That's 17,000 feet of pipe they're talking about.

3) The Corps' New Orleans District's contract administration has been a travesty - perhaps even criminal - and there appears to have been an active effort to cover that up. MWI was writing change orders - including prices - and the Corps was sending them back to MWI with a bow on them. Duplicate payments have been made to MWI. There appears to be no written justification for most of the payments. There appear to be millions of dollars unaccounted for. Cynthia Nicholas, the Contract Officer on this job, has to be squirming today. One has to wonder about the 50 or so other Task Force Guardian contracts administered by the New Orleans District, some of which were much bigger than this one, and how much "impropriety" there was in them. Where have our tax dollars gone?

4) Curiously, there are no names named in the body of the report. But it is obvious who is on the hook, from the emails that are attached: Corps New Orleans District engineers Jim St. Germain (mechanical) and Dan Bradley (electrical). They need to be hung out to dry, as well as their boss, Col. Bedey. After reading this report, there is absolutly no way these folks should be trusted with fixing a bicycle pump, let alone pumps upon which tens of thousands of people are depending for protection of life and property. When it comes to the New Orleans District and the Hurricane Protection Office, houses need to be cleaned, grand juries empaneled, and perp walks televised.

5) A cursory investigation was performed last May in the immediate aftermath of Ms. Garzino's memo. It was called the "Farkas" investigation, after the guy who led it. It apparently didn't even involve Ms. Garzino, it took MWI's answers to its questions on faith and hardly anything came of it. There is an extensive section in the new report which rebuts most of MWI's responses and (implicitly) calls the Farkas investigation and those that received it (who were also in on the investigation) to task for not following up strongly enough. The Farkas investigation appears to have been a sham from the start, and its lack of enthusiastic follow-up from those most closely involved (Messrs. St. Germain, Bradley, & Bedey) points to a cover-up. At the very least, there was a shocking lack of honesty with the public.

6) Colonel Bedey has been tasked with implementing the recommendations of the report. But he's the guy under which all this crap happened, so why in the world should he be trusted? It's nuts. Through his inaction, he has shattered the relationship between the region and the Corps, a relationship which was already severely damaged. One has to be wondering what his, St. Germain's and Bradley's motivations have been for the last year in not performing the critical fix which would actually make the pumps run properly for the amount of time they need to run (12 to 24 hours in hurricane conditions).

7) Finally, one of the most important things on this report is its date. Why in the world are we only hearing about these problems now, over a year after they were initially identified? Does anyone really understand the massive breach of trust this evidences? It's concrete proof that the Corps New Orleans District and the Hurricane Protection Office has withheld, dissembled, and flat out lied to almost everyone, including the Corps' independent investigators.

These issues were very clearly evinced last April and May. Confronted with them, there should be evidence of New Orleans Corps folks moving heaven and earth, but instead there appears to be mostly improprieties and squandering of opportunities. Why did it take General Crear four months to start an investigation? Why has the investigation - by an agency which knows itself better than any outside body - taken over nine months to finally wend its way out to the public? And most importantly, how in the world could there still be critical work to be done, this long after the problems were identified?

Obviously, I'll be writing a lot more about this in the coming days, but let me leave you with this. It appears there have been a few guardian angels inside the Corps watching over New Orleans. Ironically, it appears none of them actually work in New Orleans. The Corps is not some massively evil monolith. It is made up of thousands of people trying to do their jobs. But there are also some bad apples. And it appears we've got them running our work. How this situation has festered for so long, I'll never understand.

Update: Senator Mary Landrieu has called for further investigation. She's asked the Justice Department to look into the contracting administration irregularities, and she's told the GAO to go beyond what they put out a couple of weeks ago.

News coverage of the report release:
WWL-TV (video from 6 PM news): Report says flaws still exist in outfall pumps
Times-Picayune (inexplicably not on the front page, instead buried on the front of the Metro section): Landrieu asks Feds to probe pumps
Engineering News-Record: Internal Corps Report Cites Procurement Flaws
Baton Rouge Advocate: Landrieu calls for review of contract
AP: Corps report casts new doubt on reliability of New Orleans pumps
Fox 8 has not put up a print version of their story

I feel I need to write a little bit about how the Corps played possum with the release of this report. The chronology is important, in order to gain an insight into how these people think.

May 11: The report itself was done.

May 24: The report was "released," according to the cover page, but one has to wonder what that really means, since the public didn't see it until June 8, 2007.

May 25: The national media started arriving in New Orleans to start putting together stories for the start of hurricane season.

May 29-31: General Van Antwerp visited New Orleans and had a big, whoop-te-doo, "We're going to tell the truth, no matter what" press conference at the 17th Street floodgates on May 31. Every news organization in town was there. Joining Van Antwerp at that press conference were (from the Times-Picayune's coverage of the press conference):

"Brig. Gen. Robert Crear, who directs the corps' Mississippi Valley Division in Vicksburg, Miss.; Col. Richard Wagenaar, outgoing commander of the New Orleans District office; and Col. Jeff Bedey, commander of the Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans."

The Corps actually inconvenienced its own contractors that day by forbidding them from parking their cars all day on the section of the Old Hammond Highway bridge where the presser took place. The press conference took place at 4 PM, but no one could park there all day long.

Also notable about the May 31 press conference: there were a lot of other Corps folks there besides the brass described above. Those were just the ones arrayed behind Van Antwerp during his comments. In the substantial crowd of Corps folks was Jim St. Germain, as seen below.

According to reporters at the press conference, Van Antwerp actually singled St. Germain out as a guy he'd be talking to a lot because he's responsible for the pumps. Oddly, St. Germain didn't show up for the press availability yesterday that bears directly upon that responsibility. That matters.

June 1: Hurricane season started. National media starts heading home.

Monday, June 4: General Crear (or more likely one of his staff, possibly in coordination with Public Affairs) finished his cover letter (it is stamped June 4, 2007)

Thursday, June 7: After repeated inquiries all week, only local reporters are emailed the report. Many public officials are not given a copy. The reporters are told not to report on it until after 2 PM Friday - a so-called "embargo."

Friday, June 8: Early in the morning, public officials at all levels of government receive the report, but not from the Corps.

Friday, June 8: Early in the afternoon, far from the 17th Street canal and its photogenic backgrounds (where TV stations could actually point their cameras at the hydraulic reservoirs that have yet to be raised and easily compare them to the ones that were) - in a conference room at the Corps' building on Leake Avenue, the Corps holds an invitation-only round table to release the report. Colonel Bedey and Task Force Hope head Karen Durham-Aguilera are in the room, while General Crear joins by phone. Walter Baumy, a top engineer for the Corps and former Wheeler Medal winnner, is in the room, but sits to the side.

Six reporters are in the room. They represent the AP, the Baton Rouge Advocate, WWL-TV, Fox 8 (TV), the Times-Picayune, and Engineer News-Record (an industry organ, which has turned up some good reporting, but is still mainly funded through advertisements from the construction & engineering industry). No reporters, other than from the AP, represent national organizations. Two of the local TV stations - WDSU and WGNO - are not in the room. None of the investigators on the report are made available to the press. Ms. Garzino, the one responsible for kicking all this off, is not made available. None of the Corps New Orleans District prime actors (Jim St. Germain, Dan Bradley, or Cynthia Nicholas) are in the room. Notably - in what can only be expressed as a sign of no confidence - no one from MWI is made available to defend their product.

By the way, its very notable that the report does not appear on any Corps websites. Not New Orleans District, not Hurricane Protection Office, not Mississippi Valley Division, not Corps Headquarters, not the Army. These cowards are afraid to post their own report. That hardly seems like the soldierly, honorable, truthful way to do things.

Let's also take a look at the Corps' efforts at stagecraft, because the visuals are just as important as what they say. Here's General Van Antwerp's very public (cars were driving by the whole time on the bridge behind the media) little victory dance on May 31 (courtesy the Times-Picayune):


And here's the Corps literally in their bunker on June 8 (from WWL's report):

That's Col. Bedey on the left and Task Force Hope head Durham-Aguilera on the right. Baumy's in the white shirt on the extreme right. The other folks are the reporters.

These things matter. The Corps New Orleans District (and apparently Task Force Hope, since Durham-Aguilera is right there next to Bedey propping up his dissembling) is desperate to control this story by minimizing the number of folks who are allowed to speak about it, as well as minimizing the number of reporters who could ask questions. They want to put their best face forward and avoid letting the truth out. If they were so concerned about truth and integrity and leveling with the people, why all the manipulation of the media? The answer is they are not concerned with any of the above. They are concerned with saving their own skin. That's going to be a lot harder with the Justice Department breathing down their necks.

4 Comments:

  • But Matt, Paris is going back to jail, Dollar Bill says he didn't do it, and the President had some stomach upset. Priorities!

    By Blogger Duff, at June 08, 2007 3:27 PM  

  • I hope you will send your post to all major media outlets across the country, and even around the world (esp. western Europe). Maybe, just maybe (but I won't hold my breath) this story will get some national play and pressure will be applied to clean up this mess and investigate the missing $$. Thanks for your hard work and excellent reporting, good luck.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 08, 2007 4:51 PM  

  • Unfortunately, the best thing that can happen to NOLA is for another part of the country to have a project disaster at the hands of the Corps. Let them experience what it feels like to hear the double-speak that we are getting. Better yet, let them also experience the feeling one gets when he or she tries to hold the Corps responsible for the damage inflicted by their ineptitude (re: govenmental immunity). What schlock! What absolute scholck! This is complicated story and needs to be told for the sake of NOLA and the sake of the nation. Keep plugging.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 09, 2007 7:35 AM  

  • If something like this had happened in Chicago or L.A....

    By Blogger Daniel, the Guy in the Desert, at June 09, 2007 11:09 PM  

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