Pumps Under Pressure: A matter of time?

In this satellite image from NOAA, Hurricane Katrina is seen at 1:15 PM (EST) August 29, 2005 over the Gulf Coast.
In this satellite image from NOAA, Hurricane Katrina is seen at 1:15 PM (EST) August 29, 2005 over the Gulf Coast.
Photo by NOAA via Getty Images

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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, as Peterson reports in this final installment of our series.

Molly Peterson: The Army Corps’ Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans considers the hydraulic pumps a settled matter. Ray Newman, a canal captain who monitors operations on the 17th Street canal, insists that the pumps work to keep the city dry.

Ray Newman: We had good performance and we have every reason to continue to believe we’ll have good performance.

Peterson: Newman maintains that belief despite the findings of the federal Office of Special Counsel. That office told the president and Congress that L.A.-based Corps whistleblower Maria Garzino is rightly concerned, and may have understated the depth of the problem. Barbara Boxer of California chairs the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. She plans to keep asking questions about the pumps.

Barbara Boxer: I am not satisfied that I have all the answers. I’m very concerned and I think the whistleblower makes good points because OSC has corroborated these points.

Peterson: Boxer and Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu say they want certainty about whether the pumps work. Both senators are pushing for more oversight of the Army Corps. In California each year, Boxer says the Corps runs hundreds of millions of dollars of restoration projects, water reuse projects, and flood control in the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta.

Boxer: If they are not really doing the best work they’re capable of doing, this impacts my constituents in California all over the state.

Dusty Williams: We have about half the state’s population and we have about 400 miles of levees.

Peterson: Dusty Williams is general manager and chief engineer for the Riverside County Flood Control District. He says Southern California’s flood management risk is different from that in Louisiana – but it’s bigger than most people think.

Williams: Could cause a lot of property damage; could certainly cause a lot of economic disruption. But people are not going to drown in 20 feet of water. You go up to the Bay Area, something up there fails, you might have houses completely underwater. You may have people drowning from that.

Peterson: Williams supports the idea of national levee standards, and the creation of a new agency to oversee flood control structures. After the failures at canal walls and earthen levees during Katrina, those plans are gaining ground.

The Army Corps regards the pumps’ performance during Hurricane Gustav as a success. But last year’s pump runs during storms also could be what Georgetown University business professor Robin Dillon Merrill calls a “near-miss.”

Robin DIllon Merrill: Rather than saying "wow, we got lucky," if something happened differently, this would have been a very bad outcome.

Peterson: Dillon Merrill was an external reviewer for the Corps self-investigation after Katrina. She says that misinterpreting a near-miss event can increase the risks for people who live near environmental hazards. In New Orleans, the interpreters aren’t just the Army Corps. They’re also city dwellers who assess the levees as they decide whether to evacuate.

Dillon Merrill: If people think they are safe, they stay. If people don’t think they’re safe, they go.

Former President George W. Bush: The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.

Peterson: Four years ago, President George W. Bush promised that the Army Corps would work with state and local authorities to strengthen the region’s flood protection system.

Bush: When that job is done, all Americans will have something to be proud of.

Peterson: Maria Garzino is not proud of the way the Army Corps has handled her criticisms of the pumps. She says she’s still hoping for better. At the same time, Katrina taught her that catastrophes don’t necessarily bring out the best in people.

Maria Garzino: In my mind, I’m expecting people to rise to the occasion. And when they are failing consistently on a huge scale, it dawned on me that this is nothing more than people being who they are naturally. The event doesn’t change people. That’s a pretty big truth.

Peterson: Garzino says she’s trying to reconcile that truth with her loyalty to the Army Corps. She’s pretty sure she won’t ever live comfortably with the hydraulic pumps, still awaiting a big storm on the canals in New Orleans.