NEW ORLEANS - The Corps of Engineers acknowledged to 4 Investigates Monday that it will not have enough money to finish strengthening three New Orleans pump stations and the Sewerage and Water Board’s power plant so they can withstand Category 3 winds.
Congress and former President George W. Bush gave the Corps more than $200 million after Hurricane Katrina specifically to harden New Orleans pump stations and the old Carrollton Power Plant that runs the sewer and water system.
But in a closed-door meeting last week, the Corps told the three contractors handling the work that there isn’t enough money to retrofit the walls and roofs to withstand a Category 3's 156-mile-per-hour winds.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he found out about it from Channel 4, and he is not happy.
"Congress authorized this structure work, including this hardening work, and for the Corps to mount these cost overruns and then simply cancel the work, not even notify Congress what it will take to finish the work properly, I think, is totally irresponsible,” Vitter said.
Vitter, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, just held a meeting last week to call for more funding for the Corps. But they are frustrated by the Corps’ constant problems with cost overruns.
"Sen. Landrieu is determined to make the Corps of Engineers more efficient,” Landrieu spokeswoman Amber McDowell said. “She is particularly troubled that cost overruns continue to impact critical projects like this one. Taxpayers deserve a timely and cost-effective process for completion of flood protection infrastructure."
"I am very concerned that more than seven years after Hurricane Katrina the Corps is still reporting cost overruns," Richmond said. "My staff is meeting with (the Corps’ New Orleans District Commander) Col. (Ed) Fleming tomorrow morning to get to the bottom of where the money went and why exactly it's taking so long to complete these critical storm proofing projects."
Spokesman Ricky Boyett said the Corps didn't realize how much it would cost to retrofit the older, historic structures.
“Unfortunately, the unknowns and complexities associated with the rehabilitation of these older, historical structures has led to unexpected schedule and cost growth,” Boyett said. “As such, the Corps is reassessing what work can be completed with the remaining available funds.”
Pump Station No. 1, at South Broad St. and Martin Luther King Boulevard is probably the toughest one to strengthen. Its walls are 113 years old. Sources tell Channel 4 that the contractor, Benetech, still has more than 1,000 steel bars to drill into the old walls to strengthen them fully.
Benetech originally had the work on seven New Orleans pump stations and still is working on four of them.
It surely hasn't helped that Benetech has been beset by scandal while working on all seven pump stations.
Benetech's original owner, Aaron Bennett, awaits sentencing for a bribery conviction. He is accused of taking $600,000 from the pump station account to fund his wife's movie project. His father took over Benetech and defaulted on three of the pump stations, forcing a bonding company to take over.
Boyett said none of that had any effect on why the defaulted project ended up with 36 contract changes and 16 percent over-budget. Benetech’s four remaining stations required 21 contract changes and is a year behind schedule. Benetech construction manager Jim Book declined to comment.
The Corps awarded a contract in 2010 to harden the 25-cycle power plant off Claiborne Avenue, but a subcontractor walked off the job before it ever got started. The project was pushed back two years and has been changed 41 times in the interim.
The three contracts covering storm-proofing at the seven pump stations and the power plant had to be changed a total of 98 times, causing the costs to rise by more than $3 million.
Boyett says plenty of strengthening work has been finished already and the stations will all be stronger than they were before Katrina.
For example, Pump Station No. 4 on the London Avenue Canal already has a new backflow preventer and generator that will make it stronger in the future. But only half of the rebar has been installed in its World War II era walls. At it and other stations, the Corps has cancelled plans to install new steel support structures under the roofs.
Sewerage and Water Board spokesman Robert Jackson said the board is confident its pump operators will be safe in the structures, even without the full hardening work. “Some of our older drainage stations will not have the structural work completed as scheduled,” he allowed. “However, the stations impacted will benefit from the work that was performed. These stations have been in place and staffed with S&WB employees, throughout every major weather event that has impacted this city over the last 100 years, whether category 1, 2, 3 or above. We are confident that with proper maintenance funding, these buildings will be resilient throughout storms in the future.”