Fix the pumps

Thursday, December 28, 2006

So we got a little rain today...

Updated 12/28/06: I'm reposting this today because I've added links to Black & Veatch needs report for Sewerage & Water Board. If you have any interest in the future of New Orleans, please read this report. Some of it is pretty scary.

Updated 12/22/06: revisions about the power system, safe water levels and the underpass stations below. Heck, just reread the whole thing, because I did a big re-edit.

The whole New Orleans area got hammered with rain today. There was serious flooding throughout the region. Many of the usual areas (well, usual for the last ten or twenty years) took on water, including Clearview and Earhart in Jefferson Parish and the area around Nashville Ave. and South Claiborne Avenue in Uptown New Orleans.

What we got today (and last night) was approximately equal to a ten-year storm, which is about equivalent to around 9 inches over a 24 hour period. Yeah, there was a little less than 9 inches, but we were close enough. Most of the drainage systems in this town were designed to handle a ten year storm, so this was a very real test of the drainage system post-Katrina. Here's what I saw this morning. Keep in mind, I'm exclusively focused on Orleans Parish.

I stopped by Pump Station 1 around 9 AM and again at 11 AM. They were running pumps A & B (550 cubic feet per second, or cfs), C, D, and E (1000 cfs each), and pump G (1200 cfs). Pump F is out for bearing repairs, under this long delayed Corps repair contract that should have issued months ago. I don't know if the two small vertical pumps (225 cfs each) were running. That means there was somewhere between 5300 and 5750 cfs flowing down the Palmetto Canal. There was still a frightenly small (maybe two feet) of freeboard left before the canal overtopped. From what I've heard, the true capacity of the canal is around 5900 cfs. I got up on one of the pedestrian bridges to take a couple of pictures. That particular bridge has open grating for its surface, allowing me to see the water rushing by just a few feet from my, uh, feet. It was kind of scary.

We were very fortunate there was no wind with this storm. If there had been, the 60 Hz pump G would have likely gone out, causing flooding in Broadmoor and Central City. As it was however, Broadmoor mostly stayed dry.

Moving further down the system, I visited the railroad trestle in front of Station 6. They appeared to be running pumps C, D, E, F, and G (1000 cfs each), pump H (1100 cfs), and all four verticals (250 cfs), for a total of 7100 cfs. Admittedly, that's just based on looking at the discharges for bubbling, which isn't entirely reliable. One other data point is that the staff gauge on the discharge side of the station showed four feet. It normally shows about 0 to 1 foot above sea level. The safe water level set by the Corps is six feet. The canal was designed for 11 to 12 feet, which was shown to be fallacious (see: breach, levee). The water was just a couple of feet below the railroad ties, which was again scary.

UPDATE, 12/22/06: Incidentally, the water reached 3.4 feet in the London Avenue canal yesterday. The safe water level there is 4 feet. I do not know how many or which pumps were flowing at stations 3 and 4, which feed that canal.

Elsewhere in the system... I checked out the pumps in Hollygrove and the Monticello Canal. Oleander Station, which houses three 33 cfs pumps, only had one pump going. That one was turning on and off every few minutes, probably due to the level sensor being set just a bit high. The other two pumps were not running at all, which surprised me considering how much rain was falling.

Just down Monticello St., the Pritchard Place station was running both 125 cfs pumps, as seen here. The Monticello Canal was filled about two feet below the top of the channel on the Orleans side, which is unfortunately at street level. Understandably, this scares a lot of people in Hollygrove.

I don't know about the other two stations that dump water into the 17th St. Canal, on Canal St. in Metairie and the I-10 station, though I did hear radio reports of flooding at underpass drained by the I-10 station.

The local news (specifically WDSU TV) reported that at least three railroad underpasses in Orleans Parish (Carrollton Ave, Canal Blvd., and Franklin Ave.) required placement of temporary pumps, probably because the permanent underpass stations are still not working. A fourth underpass (Paris Ave), was reported closed by New Orleans CityBusiness. The S&WB has had a hard time getting funding for repairs to those stations. There are twelve underpass stations, and they are shown on this graphic which accompanyed this April 27th Times-Picayune article (the one about the motors burning up).

The Corps refused to repair them because they didn't consider them part of the hurricane protection system. I'm sure firefighters and EMS workers that get blocked by a flooded underpass when trying to traverse the city to a fire would disagree.

The underpass stations also show up in the Black & Veatch report that shows the S&WB with a short- and long-term funding gaps reaching into the billions of dollars, as reported in the Times-Picayune today. That report is publicly available here and here. In the Drainage System section there is the following line item:
FEMA Projects $40,410,000
FEMA will cover some minor damage to the drainage system; primarily, the underpass pumping station repairs, as well as damages to pump stations that have already been completed or contracted by S&WB. It is thought that remaining damage repairs will be turned over to the Corps of Engineers.

Could this be one of the items that is being held up by the state? Considering it was in a report prepared just two months ago, I wouldn't be surprised. The underpass stations also get a separate line item here:
Underpass Drainage Station Mitigation $6,500,000
Certain underpasses require pumping to prevent flooding during storms. Pump station mitigation projects are expected to cost $6,000,000 to $7,000,000.

According to the report, this project is unfunded, and is part of a S&WB $822 million emergency funding request to the Louisiana Recovery Authority to cover projects ineligible under FEMA guidelines . Based on the recent doling out of CDBG funds by the LRA (the city of New Orleans got just $116,000,000), it appears this request is not going anywhere without substantial additional funds being supplied to the LRA by Congress. Please read the report.

Everyone probably wants to know what caused all the flooding. I don't know, but there's a few theories:

1) Remaining silt that washed in from the lake during Katrina is clogging many drainage lines. The city is begging FEMA for more funds to finish cleaning out those lines. Robert Mendoza, New Orleans' Director of Public Works, testified about this in detail at a very lightly attended November 1, 2006 New Orleans City Council Public Works Committee hearing. That was the same hearing the Corps blew off. Incidentally, it's beginning to appear the Corps will again blow off the same committee at their next hearing on January 8th.

2) There may have been a power loss in the S&WB 25 cycle power plant at the height of the storm, according to this article in the Times-Picayune (important: see UPDATE below). This would be at least the second time this has happened since Katrina. The first time that I know of was July 10, 2006, also during a rainstorm. In that case, 25 cycle power was lost for up to two hours across the city. 60% of the city's drainage capacity is provided by 25 cycle pumps. Incidentally, the Times-Picayune did not report the July 10th incident, except as it related to shutting down the water intake pumps for the city. Frankly, the drainage system shutdown that day was far more important.

This is a big deal. If the S&WB 25 cycle power system is unreliable, it could not only cause flooding, but it could contribute to fires not being put out, since the same power plant provides power for the water distribution system. This is scary. Here's what the Black & Veatch report says about the 25 cycle system:
Power Plant $125,000,000

The 25-cycle power plant supplies energy for water treatment, water distribution, drainage pumping stations, sewer pump stations A and C, and the Algiers Water Treatment Plant. The existing power plant was shut down for five days after Hurricane Katrina, but was restored as quickly as possible as it provided crucial power to drain the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Fourteen months after the storm, Entergy’s power supply remains fragile and is unreliable. The backup power plant has become the primary power source for some assets and is now in full operation in spite of damages from Hurricane Katrina. Given the vulnerability and unreliability of the Entergy power feeds, the S&WB must improve its power generation capability. Its power plant needs significant modifications to prevent flooding and to ensure drainage, sewerage, and water purification services when commercial power is not available.

UPDATE, 12/22/06: Since I posted the above, I have learned there was no 25 cycle power outage, though I will endeavor to confirm that. The power loss at Station 6 was due to a current overdraw on one of the Station 6 Entergy feeders. It was fairly brief.

3) One of the pumps at Station 6 may be down for bearing maintenance, under the same contract as that at station 1, taking 1100 cfs out of circulation at that station. I don't know that for a fact, and Joe Sullivan's statements in the Times-Picayune article would seem to dispute it. I'll look into it further.

UPDATE, 12/22/06: Joe Sullivan's comments were merely meant to convey the capacity of Station 6, not to say what was actually happening in the station yesterday.

4) We just got a heck of a lot of rain. The system is designed for a ten year storm, and that's about what we got today. However, if any of the above factors contributed, it means that New Orleans should prepare for flooding like this for the foreseeable future, because (except for the bearing repairs), these are not problems that will be solved inside of five years, at the minimum.

Finally, much of the local press focused on public officials' blaming clogged catch basins, implying that residents are in some way responsible for flooding of one to two feet. Do these pictures look like a case of a few leaves clogging the drains? What about the pictures in this slideshow? No, they are indicative of much more systematic problems. Frankly, I'm sick of public officials using the catch basins excuse. Streets do not get inundated by clogged catch basins. If they did, no one would be able to drive anywhere in this city when it rained.


  • thankyou.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 22, 2006 9:09 PM  

  • Pictures of Calhoun near Tulane here:

    Is this true? "Finally, much of the local press focused on public officials' blaming clogged catch basins, implying that residents are in some way responsible for flooding of one to two feet." I might not have been focused lately, but I thought the advice to residents was just that, the officials were perplexed how to solve the larger problem, and were encouraging street level activity as a matter of course. I didn't get the blame factor, iow. More like, when a house is gutted or demolished and the Bobcats push through, the basins get clogged again. Heck, they found a dead dog in the grate across from us months ago. So there is something to the catch basin idea: any little bit helps.

    I think the larger problem is more than residual lake silt. The two drains on my back patio were filled with silt which I believe came up through the system. The leaky underground pipes throughout the city undoubtedly allow(ed) some sediment into the system at points of breakage. And that puts a strain on the pumping system, which isn't up to par as it is.

    By Blogger startrekchess, at December 23, 2006 1:50 PM  

  • I added a couple of links to local press stories in which clogged catch basins were mentioned. I did a quick survey of local coverage from all four local TV stations and the T-P, and catch basins were featured prominently in most.

    By Blogger mcbrid35, at December 26, 2006 6:34 PM  

  • I see. It's a bit of a deflection; sediment removal requires a vactor truck, which may or may not be what C-Ray is referring to in the abc link, it's unclear: "Nagin says after eye-balling the problem, city trucks came out to clear the catch-basins. The water started draining by mid-afternoon."

    More downtalking to the ignorant populace by elected officials who don't themselves understand the workings of the drainage system.

    Keep going, Matt!

    By Blogger startrekchess, at December 27, 2006 12:03 PM  

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