Fix the pumps

Sunday, December 31, 2006

More rain yesterday

Update, 12/31/06:

I'm reposting this today, because I've made some substantial revisions to the section on flow in the London Avenue Canal. What got no press coverage after the rainfall on December 21st, except here, is how close the water got in that canal to the level at which the Corps says a breach could occur. It was within seven inches.

This brings up serious questions around what the Corps is doing to safeguard the walls of all three outfall canals when there is not a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, if they are doing anything. I go into this in more detail below.

We've had some more rain today, but it seems it was a little less intense than the December 21st storm. I drove around again to check on pumps and canals. I was out in the late afternoon before and just after dusk, so this doesn't reflect any intense rain that may have come later.

For reference, here's a map of the pump stations in New Orleans (click to enlarge):

You can match up the locations on the map above with the locations shown on this map from the 12/22/06 Times-Picayune, which shows which areas of the city drain to which stations (though it does have errors in Hollygrove, the location of the Pritchard and Monticello stations).

I visited four stations this afternoon, as well as traversing a number of railroad underpasses. Here's what I saw:

Pump station reports
Station 1 (Broadmoor/Central City): Just as on 12/21/06, every pump that could be running was running. This includes pumps A&B (550 cubic feet per second, or cfs, each), C, D, & E (1000 cfs each) and pump G (1200 cfs). Pump F is out for bearing repairs. Pump G will be taken down for identical repairs once F is fixed. I couldn't tell if vertical pumps V1 & V2 (225 cfs each) were running. The Palmetto Canal, into which Station 1 discharges, was running about 3 or 3.5 feet lower than on 12/21/06.

Station 2 (Mid-City): Both 550 cfs pumps (A & B) were running, sending water to Station 3. One of the two 1000 cfs pumps (pump D) was also running, sending water to Station 7. The other 1000 cfs pump (pump C) remains out for rewinding repairs.

Railroad underpasses at North Broad Ave., Paris Avenue, Gentilly Blvd., I-10, and South Carrollton Ave. were all clear.

Station 3 (St. Roch/Fairgrounds/7th Ward): All major pumps were running. This includes both 550 cfs pumps (A & B) and all three 1000 cfs pumps (C, D, and E). The staff gauge on the London Avenue Canal discharge of the station, which indicates the depth of the water above sea level, showed around 3 feet. Note, however, that this measurement might not be reliable due to subsidence across the entire city over the years. The true depth might have been 2 feet; I just don't know.

Station 4 (Gentilly/Pontchartrain Park): This station also empties into the London Avenue canal. It is at the intersection of Warrington and Prentiss on the east side of the canal. It is difficult to get a read on which pumps are running at this station, but I know at least two of the three 1000 cfs pumps were pumping. I think they were pumps D&E, with C not running. However, that's only based on watching water flowing into the inlet basin. There are two other smaller vertical pumps (1 & 2), each rated for 320 cfs. Based on their inlet basin, I think they were both running.

London Avenue Canal depths
So the total flow into the London Avenue canal was at least 6740 cfs. I checked staff gauges along the canal in a number of spots, because the Corps has set the safe water level to only four feet in the London Avenue canal. At the Mirabeau Ave. bridge, which is between stations 3 and 4, it was about 2 ft. At the Robert E. Lee Avenue bridge, which is downstream of both stations, it was around what appeared to be 4 ft. However, spraypainted markings on the inside of the canal walls, obviously put there by Corps contractors working on the nearby canal breach, showed the height might actually have been 3 feet or less (this points up what I said about subsidence of the ground under the staff gauges).

London Avenue Canal analysis
The reason I'm bringing all this up is because of the criteria for closing the gates on London Avenue on the approach of a tropical storm. They're supposed to drop at when the water in the canal reaches four feet above sea level. Today, the lake was at normal stage, which is around 0 feet, or sea level. And the canal depth appeared to be at a safe depth. But it was at 3.4 feet on December 21st.

With a tropical storm approaching New Orleans - a storm that would be bearing lots of rain - it doesn't take a lot of imagination to create a scenario with lots of rain swelling the canal from the pump stations in the south, and a relatively minor storm surge raising the lake level from the north. The combination of the two would then probably add up to 4 feet, meaning one of two things, both of which lead to flooding in the areas drained by stations 3 and 4:

1) The gates drop and London Avenue canal users are limited to inadequate pumping capacity, currently at 2800 cfs, with plans to raise it to 4800 cfs by August 1. Either number is obviously lower than what would be required for both stations 3 and 4 to adequately drain that part of the city without flooding (remember, today's outflow was about 6740 cfs).

2) To keep the canal level below 4 feet without closing the gates, S&WB pump station operators might be "asked" by the Corps to shut down pumps in stations 3 or 4. This would be the preferable course of action, since it preserves as much flow as possible. However, it might only be a preamble to eventual closure of the gates when the storm gets closer. In any case, it is extremely unlikely this would happen, since pump station operators answer to the S&WB and the citizens of New Orleans, not the Corps.

As a reminder of the effects of inadequate pumping capacity at the London Avenue floodgates, take a look at the inundation maps here, specifically the July, 2006, 9 inches one. The reason I picked that one is it shows a ten year rainfall with the floodgates pumping capacity we can expect most of next hurricane season (2800 cfs). It shows extensive flooding in the area drained by station 4. And that is after just six hours. Of rainfall for which the system is designed. The gates are expected to stay down for much longer than six hours.

One other thing about that map is that it is based on a safe water level of five feet in the London Avenue Canal. The SWL is now four feet, meaning earlier gate droppage and longer time for those gates to stay down - definitely longer than the six hours shown on the map.

Why don't we know what will happen?
We would know exactly what the Corps' plans are if they had publicly released the Water Control Plan, which has been complete since August, 2006. The Water Control Plan, mentioned on pages 15 and 31 of the Floodgates Operating Manual, supposedly details exactly which New Orleans and Jefferson Parish pump stations will do what when the gates drop. Specifically, the manual says on page 15:
"Through the working relationships established in the Water Control Plan, the Canal Captains will primarily be observers at the Local Partner pump stations but if the canal level rises to one foot below the Safe Canal Levels they will notify the pump operators and continue to communicate with the operators to verify they are adjusting pumping accordingly."

And on page 31:
"The Canal Captains will observe canal levels and confirm that pump station operations are being performed in accordance with the Water Control Plan agreed to by the Corps of Engineers and the local interests."

Notice that in the first quote, pumps are supposed to be "adjusted" when the level in the canal reaches one foot below the safe water level. On December 21st, the water in the London Avenue Canal reached 3.4 feet, or about seven inches below the safe water level. Yet the Corps, specifically Chris Accardo (New Orleans District Chief of Operations and according to the Floodgates Operations Manual, the guy in charge of Canal Captains), had this to say the next day in the Times-Picayune:
"This event is a nonevent."

Did they violate their own procedures? Maybe not, because technically, the Floodgates Operating Manual doesn't kick in unless there's a storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. But if we can get within seven inches of the London Avenue Canal Safe Water Level with just a normal ten-year rainfall, surely there's also a Corps procedure simply in order to prevent another breach on London Avenue when it's just rainfall raising the canal level. I really hope there is, because the walls don't care whether the water comes from the north or the south. What if we had gotten a more serious downpour than on 12/21? What if the canal had swollen another seven inches?

I placed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Corps for the Water Control Plan as soon as I learned of its existence, on August 11, 2006. They never acknowledged the request, despite the unambiguous language of FOIA and their own regulations which direct that a substantial response be made within 20 days. Unfortunately, for some reason the Corps has decided to fight that request, and six others I have made since April 30th for various documents, in federal court. I believe the trial is scheduled for some time in March. Why they wouldn't release to the citizens of New Orleans and Jefferson Parish their complete plans for those citizens' homes, businesses, and livelihoods is beyond me, and seems to be in direct contradiction to their expressed wishes to somehow communicate openly and honestly with those citizens. After all, in their "12 Actions for Change," (this link may be broken, so try this to see the Actions for Change) released on August 24, 2006, the Corps had these two items under "Communication:"
Communication: Effective and transparent communication with the public, and within the Corps, about risk and reliability.
9) Effectively communicate risk.
10) Establish public involvement risk reduction strategies.

In light of the fact that the water in the London Avenue Canal can obviously get pretty close to or above four feet without much effort, we have a right to know what will happen in that eventuality. That would be "transparent," "effectively communicating risk," and involving the public. Fighting the release of documents which would achieve those goals does not fall within those "Actions for Change."

In sum, there is real risk to the people living and working in the areas along the London Avenue canal, as well as those draining into the canal. There is not - and there won't be - adequate pumping capacity to evacuate rainfall if the floodgates drop. And even before the gates drop, it seems likely that pumps will be turned off to safeguard the canal walls and levees as the canal level rises close to 4 feet. And part of that risk is because the Corps is not effectively, transparently communicating with the public.

So while much of the press attention has focused on the 17th Street canal, I believe the real story is on the London Avenue canal. Hard questions need to be asked of the Corps on this issue, and documents - specifically the Water Control Plan - backing up their answers must be released.

And just in case you'd like to ask those questions, here's some email addresses:

Colonel Richard P. Wagenaar, Commander, New Orleans District of the Corps

Lieutenant Colonel Murray P. Starkel, Deputy Commander, New Orleans District

Colonel Jeffrey Bedey, head of the Hurricane Protection Office at the New Orleans District, which has direct responsibility over the pump station repair contracts and the floodgate projects

Jim St. Germain, Project Manager, New Orleans District

Christophor Gilmore, Project Manager, New Orleans District; author of the Floodgates PIR

Greg Breerwood, Deputy for Planning, Programs and Project Management, New Orleans District

Walter Baumy, Chief of Engineering Division, New Orleans District

Michael Lowe, Chief of Emergency Operations, New Orleans District

Brigadier General Robert Crear, Commander, Mississippi Valley Division (MVD) of the Corps (MVD is above New Orleans)

Colonel Albert M. Bleakley, Deputy Commander, Mississippi Valley Division (this one is a guess based on BG Crear's address above; I couldn't find it online)

David Sills, Chief of Emergency Management and Security Division, Mississippi Valley Division

To make copying into a "to:" field easier, here they are all together:,,,,,,,,,,


  • I'm in Vista Park, near the London Avenue Canal north breach, and I agree that flooding from rainfall is a real danger here. I have many neighbors who hare already repaired and moved back in or are in the process of repairing their slab homes. I don't think they understand that this area is and will remain in danger of flooding for many more years. Not just from tropical storms, but from intense rainfall events such as what we saw recently. This area flooded in 1995 with no hurricans, no gates and no out-of-service pumps to complicate things. I wish our local leardership was more honest with us and not simply urging everyone to hurry up and rebuild any damn way they want to.



    By Blogger Tim, at December 31, 2006 11:10 AM  

  • I've been worried about the same thing. Riding around yesterday and seeing the water level in the Orleans Avenue and London Avenue Canals it became obvious with the Corp's current plan in place, a heavy rain (like the three we had in the 80s and 90s) or a slow moving tropical storm would raise the water level in the canals higher than it got from Katrina when the walls failed.

    Will it take another flooding of the city by the Corps before something is done?

    Matt, if I can be of any service in helping you in your court fight for these public records, please let me know. I am an attorney and would be glad to assist.

    What is the government's justification for concealing this report? What does the U.S. Attorney's Office or counsel for the Cirps say to you about this?

    Is it possible to ask the court to grant an expedited hearing on your request in the public interest?

    Good luck to you and thank you for your tireless efforts on this.

    Frank Silvestri

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 31, 2006 9:37 PM  

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