NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Mitch Landrieu said Sunday that an examination of Sewerage & Water Board documents released to the public last week and conversations with his subordinates have now made it “abundantly clear” that there are “major issues” within the agency.
“It is now clear to me based on my review of the logs and information that has come to me from my staff about the logs that the system has never been 100 percent operational and at 100 percent of its capacity,” Landrieu said Sunday during a press conference to give an update on the work being done to rehabilitate the city’s drainage system.
“Let me be clear: the buck ultimately stops with me,” he continued. “I own it, I accept it and I am taking responsibility to fix it.
S&WB PROBLEMS NOTHING NEW
But while he claimed he only just learned how badly the drainage system is hobbling along, he said during the same press conference that he has spent most of his time in office trying to address the “gargantuan” cost of rehabilitating the S&WB’s creaky infrastructure. “This goes to the issues I’ve spoken about for seven years.”
Landrieu as mayor serves as the president of the S&WB’s Board of Directors. Similar claims about not realizing how urgently fixes are needed are what led one S&WB Board member to resign in disgust as the scope of the issues the utility faces began to come to light.
Scott Jacobs, who was president pro tem until he gave up his seat last week, told The New Orleans Advocate he felt agency employees were being forced to take the fall for major infrastructure issues City Hall had never been forced to grapple with.
"City Hall has known for years that drainage is inadequate," Jacobs told The Advocate. "I’m disappointed that instead of standing up and saying this is a problem and now’s the time to deal with it, we’re going to shoot a civil servant an hour until this problem is resolved."
Jacobs did not respond to calls or text messages from WWL-TV on Sunday.
It is common for the mayor to not attend Board meetings. In fact, when the Board used to include City Council members, they would often send a staff member in their place.
Late Sunday night City Hall told WWL-TV Landrieu typically sends a representative in his place and that the president pro tem makes decisions.
Minutes from the July 19 Board meeting were not online, but a video recording appears to show Chief Administrative Office Jeff Hebert was the mayor's proxy. Minutes from and videos of recent meetings also show Hebert in attendance.
New Orleans Pump Crisis
Landrieu said today he had a better grasp of the mammoth problems facing the city's pumping equipment, a major about face from yesterday, when he admitted he had not yet reviewed S&WB logs showing pumps were off for hours while water flooded homes, cars and businesses last week.
S&WB Executive Director Cedric Grant said last weekend that all pumps were “operational,” even as water sat stagnant in city streets long after the last rain drop fell. He grew irritated at claims about non-working pumps and shrugged off the rain storm that dumped as much as 9- inches of water in some neighborhoods as a side effect of climate change.
He admitted Sunday that some pumps were not immediately turned on since roving S&WB employees tasked with visiting usually unmanned stations could not maneuver around flooded streets.
LOGS TELL DIFFERENT STORY THAN CITY LEADERS
WWL-TV first reported on the logs Friday night. They were obtained by Matt McBride, a mechanical engineer who also publishes fixthepumps.blogspot.com, and later published on the S&WB's website.
Asked Saturday if he had reviewed the documents, Landrieu said he had not and would wait for a third-party post-mortem on the flood to learn why the system failed so badly on Aug. 5 and July 22.
It’s not clear how long it would take for that review to be completed since the city has not yet put out requests for proposals, essentially opening the contract-bidding process. That would happen this week, Landrieu said.
He said Sunday a fresh set of eyes would bring new perspective to the issue.
“Over the last few days it has become abundantly clear that we continue to have major issues with Sewerage and Water Board infrastructure that surround three primary areas: one, the generation of power; two, whether pumps are working or not; and three, manpower.”
The latest S&WB setback happened Wednesday night when a panel on a turbine that generates electricity to power many of the city’s oldest pumps overheated, leaving just one turbine to do the job of five with no backup in place. Two other turbines broke down in recent weeks. A third has been out of service since 2012.
More than two-dozen generators will be in place at the S&WB’s power plant through the end of hurricane season to help power the pumps and increase redundancy.
NUMBER OF BROKEN PUMPS INCREASES
City Hall later updated the number of broken pumps, saying 17 of the 120 are offline. Eleven of are used to drain stormwater from city streets. The remaining 103 likely have issues, too, Landrieu said.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence now from the information now that I got from the Sewerage & Water Board, which is why now we have brought in private contractors to reassess the system with fresh eyes to give us clear information,” Landrieu said.
District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, who is running for mayor, said about 75 percent of the complaints her office gets every day have to do with the Department of Public Works and S&WB.
She said agreed with Landrieu that he is ultimately responsible for everything that has happened in recent weeks.
"He has the authority to appoint members to the Sewerage & Water Board,” Cantrell said. “And so, what we saw was complete negligence across the board.”
The six other City Council members either were not available for interviews or did not respond to interview requests.
More than two-dozen generators have been ordered and will be in place through the end of hurricane season. Extra manpower has also been brought in to staff smaller pumping stations that usually are unmanned, such as pumping station No. 12 in Lakeview which was not manned until 7 p.m. Saturday and was not given the clear to power up until 9:30 p.m.
Landrieu said his administration now has one sole focus going forward.
“Getting catch basins clean, getting the power sources back up, getting the pumps operating is the priority for the city,” he said, adding that that means other things might suffer. “For everything we do, there’s always a cost and there’s always a sacrifice, and somebody always has to pay. Those three things will never go away, no matter what circumstance we’re under.”
WWL-TV reporter Caresse Jackman contributed to this report.