Fix the pumps

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Calling BS

Now that the news about Maria Garzino's memo has broken all over the place, I thought a few points needed to be made.

Yesterday, the Corps flew Colonel Bedey, the head of the Hurricane Protection Office, back from Washington so he could be there when two local TV affiliates (Fox 8 and ABC 26) filmed four of the 17th Street pumps being run. The Corps pointed to this demonstration as proof that everything's just A-OK.

1) The Corps already ran these pumps last Saturday. The Times-Picayune buried a tiny article about it on page B-3 in Sunday's local section. Here's the article:

Corps pump tests get thumbs up

This article (and possibly the Corps' alerting the media about the test) was also a bid by the Corps to get out ahead of the news that broke yesterday. They obviously failed in that bid.

2) Those four pumps were ordered long after Ms. Garzino's memo and after the other 34 pumps started failing last summer. They were part of an order of six extra pumps to MWI (total charge, about $4 million for all six). These four were actually the last pumps installed - they went just a couple of months ago (they weren't fully hooked up as of January 26, 2007) and are not the subject of Ms. Garzino's memo. That is, they were not in the original order of 34. Using these pumps as a demonstration to show that the other 34 are working is pure lying. The Corps is probably going to turn on those pumps again tomorrow for the Mayor. They represent about 800 cubic feet per second of capacity (theoretically). Pre-Katrina, over 10,000 cfs flowed down the 17th Street canal.

3) The test last Saturday, like the one last night, only went for about an hour. That was not mentioned in the Times-Picayune article. But ALL the floodgate pumps (there are no spares in case one or more fails during a storm) will have to run for 12 or maybe 24 hours during a tropical storm or hurricane. Why isn't the Corps running tests for the media that last that long? Because they know the pumps and their drive units probably can't hold out for that long.

Don't buy what the Corps is selling.

Finally, I have one other hunk of information to add.

As a result of another FOIA request I made in May of last year, the Corps uploaded a number of documents to the IPET website this past February (the site that was set up to allow the public to understand the Corps' investigation into Katrina). I just found out about this two days ago when they responded to my FOIA lawsuit. You can find them by going to the IPET website, clicking on "Post-Katrina" on the left, and then "Project Informations Reports." You'll see the files listed there.

The documents are all of the revisions of the Project Information Report ("PIR" in Corps-speak) that authorized the floodgates and the pumps. PIR's are detailed scopes of work and budgets written by the Corps to detail ther projects. They are not generally released. I had previously obtained Revisions 0 and 1 of this document, despite the Corps ignoring my FOIA request for them. I did not know that Revisions 2, 3, and 4 existed until a few days ago.

Revision 0 (Oct., 2005)
Revision 1 (Jan., 2006)
Revision 2 (May, 2006)
Revision 3 (Jul., 2006)
Revision 4 (Oct., 2006)

In Revision 1, which came out in January of 2006, the Corps set up their entire strategy for protecting the three outfall canals. It was to be a two pronged strategy. There would be floodgates to protect against storm surge, and there would also be repairs to the walls along the canals. They set aside $29 million to do this at all three canals. I've blogged repeatedly about these bank stabilization contracts before, wondering what happened to the money and the plans. Well, now that I've seen Revisions 2, 3, and 4, I know part of the answer: the plans simply disappeared.

Revision 2, issued May 17, 2006, makes absolutely no mention of the status of the bank stabilization contracts (other than mentioning them in the budgetary chart - so apparently they still existed as ideas in May, 2006), or any plans for implementing them. Revisions 3 and 4 are similarly silent on those repair efforts - again, other than calling them out as line items in the budgetary chart (Note: at some point bank stabilization for Orleans Avenue canal was eliminated, since it disappears entirely between January and May, 2006). But since the walls weren't fixed (and still aren't), New Orleans now has problems with drainage even when there isn't a tropical storm. That is because the walls are so weak along the outfal canals (most severely along the London Avenue canal), the Corps has forbidden the local drainage authority from filling the canals above a level at which they deem a breach is imminent, called the Safe Water Level. At London Avenue, this level is four feet, which is the height of the base of the wall atop the levee. If that level is exceeded by the interior drainage pumps, some of those pumps must be turned off. This has already happened once, on December 30th. I blogged about this a few weeks back, and the Times-Picayune finally caught up to the story a few days later. The Corps, specifically Acting Branch Chief (Existing Pump Stations Branch) Jim St. Germain, was present in Pump Station 3 for that shutdown. In fact, it was Mr. St. Germain who recommended that shutdown.

That is the same Jim St. Germain around whom many of the events of the past few days are swirling. He's one of the Corps' New Orleans District's pumping guys, along with Dan Bradley and Dennis Strecker. All three play prominent roles in Ms. Garzino's memo, specifically in the downgrading and elimination of testing requirements without the prior knowledge of the Corps Contracting Officer, Cynthia Nicholas. Ms. Nicholas was the only person legally authorized to make such changes. You can see a picture of Messrs. St. Germain and Bradley in the Corps' February 6, 2006 newsletter. A picture of Mr. Strecker at his retirement in December, 2005 can be seen here. Mr. Strecker was evidently brought back from retirement, possibly as a contractor, just to deal with the pumps. He was at an April 18, 2006 meeting at MWI's Florida facility, representing the Corps.

Frankly, if the Corps had simply spent the money fixing the walls, which are part of the federally authorized hurricane protection system, there would have been no need for the floodgates at all.

The reason for Revision 2 was to propose a plan for expanding pumping capacity at the floodgates, specifically at 17th Street and London Ave. The initial order of MWI pumps did not give New Orleans nearly enough pumping capacity to pump out rainwater during a storm (I know, I know...). What is also really interesting about Revision 2 of the PIR is its ... surprising ... recommendation to perform that expansion by buying 32 more hydraulic pumps just like the 34 they'd already bought from MWI. 16 would be installed at 17th Street and 16 would be installed at London Avenue. This particular expansion never did take place, thank goodness.

But notice the dates of what was happening. The Corps upper-ups at New Orleans got Ms. Garzino's memo on May 4, 2006. Just 13 days later, they were recommending buying 32 more of the exact same pumps that they had been told wouldn't work! That's crazy talk! They pooh-poohed another idea to install much more robust, direct-drive, non-hydraulically-powered pumps that would have cost more (maybe) and been delivered perhaps a month later. Considering the original MWI pumps weren't working anyway, would a month have really mattered? Besides, they ended up buying the direct drive pumps anyway this past January, as I've also written about January 12, January 18, and February 11. The Corps finally reported the news in their February 21st newsletter, along with some admittedly snazzy graphics.

So to make this as clear as possible... Not only did the Corps install pumps they knew wouldn't work, not only did they simply give up throughout the entire year of 2006 on repairing the canal walls, they also recommended doubling the order of the known-to-them-to-be-defective pumps and drive units, assumedly with the same manufacturer - MWI.


  • Excellent Post. I just blogged it.

    Matt: Could you explain what WMI is talking about in their response (below) for the journalists who will follow up on this statement from the MWI press release?
    (WMI response press release)

    Also if you have evidence that
    contradicts or clarifies their statements that might be useful for anyone seeking to know more about the pumps.
    The allegations in the memo were all dismissed by other inspectors on site, and also by three additional inspectors and five separate independent consultants that were brought in to re-inspect the pumps following the memo.

    MWI was chosen in a competitive bid process and because of its world- leading expertise in designing and manufacturing pumps of the size, capacity and durability needed.

    By Blogger spocko, at March 15, 2007 12:30 AM  

  • The pumps were run at when the water levels were much higher than during storm conditions.

    The engines probably were not strained in the least - as they would be in actual storm conditions.

    Perfect for the non-technical media who are happy seeing water flowing out of a pipe.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 15, 2007 7:22 AM  

  • More on the press release in the hometown paper of the MWI. Sure would be interested in seeing you`re take on it.,0,7958748.story

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 15, 2007 2:56 PM  


    like Spocko ... I`d sure like to see your take on the company response in the hometown newspaper.

    A friend of mine is a PE and he says this kind of fine tuning is always necessary with such systems but something smells fishy when they can`t get`m to make specs in the controlled factory situation.

    I appreciate your effort to help folks understand this stuff.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 15, 2007 3:06 PM  

  • Matt,

    Do you have schematics for the pumps?

    This is an unusual design for a pump based on what I used to work with. I don't understand why the didn't go with new versions of the Wood pumps.

    I would also like to see the test criteria so the results can make sense.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 15, 2007 6:36 PM  

  • Matt,

    would you be interested in creating a mini-documentary video on the pump situation?


    By Blogger Jason Brad Berry, at March 15, 2007 6:45 PM  

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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 15, 2007 6:51 PM  

  • The pumps were run in front of the media in a "sunny day" scenario, literally.

    The pumps have to work much harder under storm conditions when the water level on the canal side is much lower.

    The pumps will fail only when put under stress, or exactly when we need them most.

    The only way to properly test them is draw down the canal water level to simulate a prestorm/storm event and run the pumps for at least 6 hours continuously - as you would during a storm

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 15, 2007 10:16 PM  

  • A friend of mine who works at MWI said that the Corps has just given MWI another rental contract for 14 more of the same hydraulic pumps to be installed by June.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 16, 2007 11:24 AM  

  • I have to disagree with your opinion that the floodgates are not needed. The floodgates are a necessary band-aid because they city will not move the pumps to the lake where they belong. Most of the flooding caused by levee failures in New Orleans could have been avoided if the pumps had been moved to the lake when the city was enjoying the geographic expansion that put people at risk in low lying areas.

    By Blogger Dad, at March 16, 2007 1:57 PM  

  • As a follow-up to what Chris says, it was an amazing feat that the Corps was able to design and build three gates to close the canals in less than a year. The goal was to protect the city from future storm surges. I don't think you could build the miles and miles of new walls in such a short time, so the choice to close them off at the lake was a good one.

    The pumps are needed to keep rainfall out of the city when the gates are closed. I don't doubt anything you've written, Matt, but given the choice between a repeat of the flooding we had with Katrina and the local street flooding they had in Jefferson Parish where the pumps were not running during the storm, I choose the street flooding.

    I do agree with you and everyone I've heard on the radio that the Corps should not be keeping bad news bottled up. We need to know what's going on, and I want the Corps and everything my government does to be completely open and honest. I hope that's not asking too much...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 17, 2007 12:08 PM  

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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 18, 2007 10:31 AM  

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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 18, 2007 11:10 AM  

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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 18, 2007 12:35 PM  

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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 18, 2007 2:16 PM  

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    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 18, 2007 2:38 PM  

  • Matt here.

    The comments have gotten way out of control on this post, so I am selectively deleting them. Personal attacks or wild assumptions about anyone's career or motivations will not be tolerated. Neither will drawn-out screeds about certain presidential administrations that have absolutely nothing to do with drainage in New Orleans. And since I don't have time to go through every one of my over 80 posts right now, I welcome anyone to point out where I may have violated my own rule, and I'll consider going back to correct that.

    You can say what you want, but this is my sandbox, and I can kick anyone out or let anyone in that I choose. That's what "comment moderation" means. No one has a constitutional right to post comments on one little blog out of millions. If you feel inclined to protest, my email is right there in my profile. However, any comments of protest will be stopped at the border. I'm prefectly willing to discuss this offline, but the online comments should stick to the matter at hand.

    I have been very generous to this point in letting anyone post nearly anything, as long as it was on point. I'm open to criticism of my findings, but when people start posting crazy stuff about people mentioned in those findings, they've strayed off the ranch and they will get plonked.

    By Blogger mcbrid35, at March 19, 2007 9:27 PM  

  • In relaton to the street flooding anonymous would prefer to the Katrina style floding I would point out the following:

    The street flooding was under conditions far more clement than what the city saw during Katrina, correct?

    So if we saw a heavy duty storm hit again (the situaton these measures are suposed to protect against) does it not follow that the "street flooding," would be crrespondingly more intensive? Say getting into the range of Aug '05?

    Simple logic and observation.

    BTW, Matt: Standing Ovation, Sir!

    By Blogger George "Loki" Williams, at March 20, 2007 11:45 AM  

  • About item 3. you may not realize this that there is not enough water in the canals to run the pumps for 12 hours or more. This month we are like 3" below rain fall average.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at March 21, 2007 1:58 PM  

  • Which just points up how important professionally-conducted factory testing is. No one can tell me that it would have made the schedule slip that much to run all the pumps themselves (not just the drive units) for a substantial amount of time during the factory testing, rather than rushing them out to the field. How much time were they saving?

    Actually, let's figure that out...

    If we figure that 3/4's of the 34 pumps never even saw water, that's about 25 pumps. If they had tested each for 12 hours (assuming the pumps could hold up for that long), that's about 12 days. If you figure setup and breakdown time for each pump of about eight hours each, that's an additional eight days. So that's about 20 days. Where could they have gotten 20 days?

    Well, if the Corps had gotten off their butts in November, '05 and gotten the bid specs out on the street by Dec. 1, 2005, that would have done it. They would have had an extra month, and still could have met the June 1, 2006 deadline.

    And now we've seen the exact same thing happen again with the extra pumps (the new ones from Patterson and Fairbanks-Morse). The Corps took over a month to get through an "expedited" bid process that started a month late to begin with, and once again, those pumps won't be ready on June 1. These people never learn, even from one year to the next.

    By Blogger mcbrid35, at March 21, 2007 6:17 PM  

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