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Seven Years After Katrina, New Orleans Still Has Defective Pumps Revealed by Whistleblower

Jesselyn Radack, August 28, 2012

Tropical Storm Isaac, on the verge of becoming a hurricane, is headed toward Louisiana. Officials have pronounced New Orleans ready, while at the same time the governor urged people in low-lying areas and places outside of levee protection to leave for safe ground.

The Army Corps of Enginerrs built a $14.5 billion flood protection system. But they have failed to address an independent evaluation by the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) in 2009 that there are serious safety and reliability issues with hydraulic pumps that were installed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. A tenacious whistleblower and former client, Maria Garzino, is US Army Corps of Engineers ("the Corps") mechanical and civil engineer who revealed the inadequate state of New Orleans' floodwater pumps built by the Corps after Hurricane Katrina. The disclosures, which both the Department of Defense Inspector General’s (DoDIG) office and the Corps fought for years, showcase how New Orleans residents are still in great danger if flooding occurs again. (Also captured vividly in the film The Big Uneasy.)

As the OSC told President Obama in 2009:

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 a reliable 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 $430 million within 3-5 years. . .    

(MWI is owned by J. David Eller, once a business partner of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a venture called Bush-El that marketed MWI pumps.)

In February 2011, Garzino wrote a letter to President Obama detailing how the Corps knowingly installed equipment that cannot adequately protect the city of New Orleans from flooding; duplicated work that cost U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars; and deliberately deceived Congress as to the nature of and reason for this work.

As Isaac lumbers toward New Orleans, officials are making confident statements on the city's ability to bear up. As Mayor Mitchell Landrieu said,

We know now, based on the latest informationm, which is always subject to change, that we are going to have a hurricane that is going to hit New Orleans . . . [T]here's nothing this storm will bring us that we are not capable of handling.

Yet people are being advised to evacuate.

After Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, the Corps made deceptive and dangerous public pronouncements that pumps had been battle-tested. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel hired an independent expert to evaluate the pumping system, and the expert criticized this 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.  I think the roughly 311,800 people currently living in New Orleans deserve to know where things stand as the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is marked by the looming Isaac, rather than being led down the garden path that has already been washed away once.


Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.