Pumps Under Pressure: Investigations, strong storms raise stakes

Aerial view of 17th Street outfall canal, interim closure structure, from July 2007.
Aerial view of 17th Street outfall canal, interim closure structure, from July 2007.
USACE/New Orleans

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We continue a story today about hurricane protection equipment, pumps installed in New Orleans after Katrina. A Los Angeles-based Corps engineer says they won’t protect the city in a major storm. To this day no public records indicate that these pumps will work as designed. KPCC’s Molly Peterson reports on how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies have listened to this whistleblower’s concerns.

Molly Peterson: As the first hurricane season after Katrina began, University of Maryland civil engineer Ed Link headed a task force the Army Corps hired to investigate what had failed before.

Ed Link: A hurricane protection system is a series system. It’s only as good as its weakest link.

Peterson: Weeks earlier, regional Army Corps officials supervising New Orleans had sent a team to check on one link: hydraulic pumps that Corps engineer Maria Garzino had seen fail in tests. That team agreed the pumps weren’t tested right in Florida. That wasn’t good enough for Garzino.

Maria Garzino: I sent repeated requests. Dozens and dozens. I tried to explain why they needed to listen, why they needed to do forensic investigation of the pumping equipment because it was defective.

Peterson: At Army Corps headquarters, Assistant Army Secretary John Paul Woodley pressed for more, too: a full project audit, from outside Louisiana’s Corps office. That audit said that Corps officials didn’t know how much water the new pumps could move out of the city almost a year after Katrina.

In New Orleans three years ago, a Corps project manager named Chris Gilmore talked of another kind of pressure he and other engineers felt as they tried to meet the deadline for hurricane season.

Chris Gilmore: When we realized we were not going to make June, I mean, it was a kick. But we pull ourselves up and keep on going. We live here and it’s our city and we want to do what we can to make it safe for our families.

Garzino: When you get up every morning, what makes you feel secure? For all of us, it comes down to my government has thought about this enough, has taken measures, and will respond accordingly.

Peterson: An engineer quoted in the memo delivered to Corps headquarters said: we were at war. Garzino said that working in New Orleans did remind her of a war zone. That made her feel responsible for the people she saw flooded out of their homes.

Garzino: When you see in someone’s eyes the complete loss – there isn’t anyone there, there isn’t anyone that’s been there recently, and there’s really no hope that they can latch on to – you want to do anything you can.

Peterson: Inquiries by the Corps and the General Accounting Office tried to lay to rest problems with the pumps. Finally, Garzino filed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. That office to report back on her claims.

The response by Parsons, a consultant and contractor to the Corps, waved away Garzino’s complaints. Then last year, on the third anniversary of Katrina, the Office of Special Counsel reopened Garzino’s case. Attorney Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project represents Maria Garzino. She calls the special counsel’s action a big deal.

Jesselyn Radack: Here we have them taking the unprecedented step of reopening Maria’s case and another unprecedented step of hiring their own independent expert to evaluate Maria’s case. I’ve never seen that happen before and I think it speaks to the magnitude of what they’re blowing the whistle on and what she’s trying to fix.

Peterson: Also last fall, the strongest storms since Katrina brushed past New Orleans. Army Corps canal captain Ray Newman says that during hurricanes Ike and Gustav, he used the hydraulic pumps.

Ray Newman: For Gustav, the 17th Street canal, we ran all of our large pumps except for one.

Peterson: Records of the data collected during those pump runs tell a more complete story. HJ Bosworth is a consulting civil engineer in New Orleans, who works with the Corps watchdog group, Levees.org.

HJ Bosworth: The operators seemed to have their favorites and then ones they only used when they absolutely had to. The troubled pumps, they were only turned on and only in use in times of very high flow.

Peterson: Most pumps ran an average of less than two hours at minimal speeds. A few ran eight hours, the minimum the pumps would run in a Katrina-like event. But even those pumps didn’t run at full speed most of the time.

Also, they sit lower in the canal’s brackish water. The Corps’ Newman says that leads to faster corrosion and more maintenance – one of many reasons engineer Bosworth says the pumps’ design is inherently flawed.

Bosworth: Every component of the system is subject to failure.

Peterson: The independent engineering consultant for the Office of Special Counsel has agreed. His opinion, that this link in the hurricane protection system is weak, reached the White House and Congress in June. Neither has answered yet.