Pumps Under Pressure
A story of risk and reliability after Katrina
KPCC’s Molly Peterson has carried out an extensive investigation of an Army Corps engineer's claim that a key part of New Orleans' rebuilt hurricane protection system will not work, and she has found that claim could very well be true. In the first of four reports, Molly explains why New Orleans needed those new pumps.
A Los Angeles-based employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says more than three dozen of the area’s water pumps would not work in a major storm. KPCC’s Molly Peterson has uncovered evidence that backs up the whistleblower’s claims. She picks up the story with pump testing.
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.
This week, KPCC has reported on evidence that the federal government placed faulty water pumps around New Orleans after Katrina – despite Bush Administration promises to improve the city’s hurricane protection system. The evidence comes from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers whistleblower and documents obtained by KPCC’s Molly Peterson. Failing pumps mean more than a possible repeat of Katrina, Peterson reports in this final installment of our series.
Video: Molly Peterson & Collin Mitchell/KPCC
Four years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina ripped up through Louisiana wetlands to punch open levees and canals, and filled the bowl of New Orleans with water. That destruction caused General Carl Strock, then head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to do something remarkable: he acknowledged the fault of the nation’s civil engineers in failures of the hurricane protection system, and promised to do better. “For those who doubt us, words alone will not restore trust,” he said as hurricane season opened in 2006. “We are mindful that the public's trust is gained when we follow through with our actions.”
Even then and ever since, a Los Angeles-based Corps engineer has questioned how well the Corps has done its job in New Orleans.
Breaches in three drainage canals connected to Lake Pontchartrain caused 88 percent of the city’s flooding, the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State University reported. One hole in the 17th Street canal gaped 465 feet wide. After the storm, the Army Corps built interim closures to keep surging stormwaters from racing down the canals again, and pumps to keep canal water at a safe height.
Maria Garzino is a 10-year Army Corps veteran, an engineer, a contract specialist. Her previous emergency work was in Iraq. She oversaw months of testing, and she believes the hydraulic pumps will not work when they're supposed to. Her concerns have spurred internal inquiries, General Accounting Office reports, and congressional hearings. The Office of Special Counsel found Garzino credible; the Department of Defense inspector general then rejected her claims. Now, this summer, an independent engineer hired by the Office of Special Counsel reports to Congress and the president she may not have gone far enough.
To verify Garzino's claims, KPCC’s Molly Peterson made four dozen public records requests to Corps offices. She obtained testing records, pump-run data from last year’s hurricanes Ike and Gustav, and a never-publicized report for the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works John Paul Woodley that described internal management problems. Public records show that pumps failed before and after installation. They indicate poor communication within an embattled Corps and between the Corps and contractors as they raced to meet deadlines. They suggest that while the Corps has assured people the system is ready, it has not proven that pumps part of a nearly half a billion dollar system will work, and it knows that most hydraulic pumps haven’t run longer than a couple of hours in a row.
The motto of the Army Corps of Engineers was once “Essayons” – French for "Let us try." They do try, along 12,000 miles of American levees, including in the Sacramento Delta, in Santa Barbara County, in Riverside. But non-engineers can’t always determine how well engineers complete their work. A near-miss can be misunderstood as a success. These pumps are a small but key part of one system. Engineers inside and beyond the Corps say that system is only as good as its weakest link. Decisions about this project speak to how the United States manages risk from environmental hazards – hazards that threaten California as they did Louisiana.