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New Orleans Pumps Unsafe . . . on Katrina Anniversary

Jesselyn Radack, August 28, 2009

This post was written by GAP Homeland Security Director Jesselyn Radack for her Daily Kos Blog.

The mainstream media, including the New York Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, have not covered an independent evaluation released in June by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) that there are serious safety and reliability issues with hydraulic pumps that were installed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. (the OSC report is the fifth from the bottom.) As the OSC told President Obama:

There appears to be little logical justification for: (1) restricting the emergency pumping capability . . . to only the untested hydraulic pump systems, (2) not requiring the installation of areliable pumping system which would adequately protect New Orleans, (3) spending hundreds of millions of dollars to install forty MWI hydraulic pumps which are scheduled to be replaced at a cost of greater than $430 million within 3-5 years. . .

Letter from OSC to President Obama at

It’s the peak of hurricane season and August 29 marks four years since deadly Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is marking the anniversary by pushing an astronomically expensive fix on Congress and the public, which the Corps conjured up to fund its supposed grand master "Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System." In reality, it’s a grotesque and wasteful maneuver to cover-up its own mistakes since Katrina.

Three official Project Information Reports that the Corps submitted to Congress to obtain authorization and funding for New Orleans’ hurricane protection repeatedly presented the economic lifespan analysis of water pumps using a 50-year period. Col. Jeff Bedey, commander of the Corps' Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans, told the public a year and a half ago that the current pumps "have something around a 50-year lifespan. These were designed to be there for 50 years."

Moreover, as Karen Durham-Aguilera, director of the Corps' Task Force Hope in Louisiana, explained, the interim closure structures with installed pumps were supposed to be incorporated into the permanent hurricane protection solution, not scrapped.

But now, Brigadier General Michael J. Walsh, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the Corps, is claiming that today’s pumps were only meant to be "temporary." The Corps new assertion that pump replacement is required was never part of the original protection plan. Walsh’s assertion that the pumps were built to last just five to seven years, is repeated by Corps officials as if it were gospel, when in reality, a 50-year lifespan is what the Corps had always contemplated and what Congress approved. Think about it.Would Congress really have spent over a half billion dollars on something with only a five year lifespan? This would have a benefit-cost ratio in the negative double digits.

The proposed abandonment of the existing gated closure structures with installed pumps was never part of the original plan submitted to Congress. This newest plan by the Corps involves rebuilding the same gated structure with installed pumps a few hundred yards further downstream, except this time with "direct drive" pumps instead of the defective hydraulic pumps that will likely fail in the event of a hurricane. Instead of paying the estimated $275 million to correct the problems with the hydraulic pumps and roughly 200 million to increase the needed pumping capacity, the Army Corps is proposing to abandon the project they have already spent half a billion dollars on, destroy and haul away the "temporary" gated closure structure with installed pumps, and then spend almost $700 million to rebuild everything from scratch.

At the same time, and contradicted by its urgent push for replacement pumps, the Corps is making deceptive and dangerous public pronouncements that the present pumps have been battle-tested by two hurricanes, Gustav and Ike. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel hired an independent expert to evaluate the pumping system, and the expert criticized this very assertion because it fails to mention that the pumps were run at low operating speeds and pressures, intermittently, and for short periods during the hurricanes. The Special Counsel’s report and the "black box" information (known technically as "SCADA data") prove the hydraulic pumps were not utilized when canal water levels were highest at the beginning of each storm, not allowed to run at full operating speeds and pressures, and not allowed to run for extended periods of time. Instead, they were relegated to an "also pumped" status that was then turned into a straw man for hydraulic pump performance that was offered up to the highest levels of the Army Corps. The recorded storm SCADA data shows clearly that the hydraulic pump runs were not examples of pumping performance that replicate what is seen in a real-life hurricane event, but rather examples of what can charitably be called "demonstration" runs.

This information lies buried many clicks deep on the Office of Special Counsel website, linked in the Intro. I think the roughly 311,800 people currently living in New Orleans deserve to know where things stand as we mark the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, rather than being led down the garden path that has already been washed away once.