ALGIERS, La. -- Anyone who's been to Algiers in the last two years knows about it. The $30 million project to widen the General DeGaulle canal and improve the West Bank drainage system.
There's an even bigger $60 million federal project to make it all pay off: Storm-proofing Pump Station 13 with backup generators to run the pumps when the area loses electricity – a near certainty with any tropical weather.
The system got its first real test with Hurricane Isaac. And for a few key hours at the height of the storm, it failed spectacularly.
Just after midnight Wednesday morning, General DeGaulle, a primary evacuation route, was impassible.
Only two of the seven pumps were working because they are diesel powered. The other five needed two backup generators to restart when power went out.
But the Corps of Engineers said those would not start.
“While the storm proofing work is substantially complete, it has not been accepted by the Corps as complete,” Corps spokesman Ricky Boyett said. “As a result, the prime contractor and manufacturer of the generators were notified of the situation. At approximately 2:30, the manufacturer's mechanics arrived on site and returned both generators to service.”
State Sen. David Heitmeier, an optometrist whose practice is at Holiday Drive and Gen. DeGaulle, has pushed for the system improvements. He was there at the pump station in the wee hours Wednesday when the mechanics arrived.
“This whole process has been about a year and a half process of putting these in,” Heitmeier said. “So it's brand new. Two weeks ago it was tested, it was operational and this is what failed.”
By Wednesday afternoon, General DeGaulle was dry again.
Boyett said the contractor storm-proofing the pump station on Tullis Drive is responsible for the generator operations. But the Sewerage and Water Board staff was left alone to run the new equipment. Boyett said the corps did not require the contractor to have anyone on the site, as it does with the new Seabrook flood gate.
Heitmeier is disappointed at the failure, but tempers that with optimism that it still performed better than in the past.
“We have a much better team that we did seven years ago,” he said. “But it's game day, the start of the season was this hurricane. Game day and we're sitting Drew Brees. That just doesn't work."
The construction work so visible on General DeGaulle has taken the old round culverts that used to back up and replaced them with wide box culverts. The water has to flow down the canal on Tullis for the pumps to effectively usher it out into the Intercoastal Waterway.
City Councilwoman Kristen Gisleson Palmer was with Heitmeier when the generators failed. She said she saw debris in catch basins that could have kept the flood water from draining properly, and she suggested that the city might need to hire someone to clear those areas before storms, as it’s done in the past.
There are also concerns about whether the convergence of the Magellan and General DeGaulle canals could cause the water to bottleneck before it gets to the pumps.
But neighbors said the canal just outside the pump station was plenty high Tuesday night and early Wednesday so the pumps had plenty to work with.
"I don't know if the pumping station was working, but the water was going like that and you could get on a surfboard and surf, that's how high the water was looking at it out my back window," said Kerry Hunter, who lives on Forest Park Lane next to the pump station.
Sewerage and Water Board spokesman Robert Jackson said the diesel pumps at the station kept up with the drainage flow fine.
“The Sewerage and Water Board was able to use the untested and unaccepted generator for this event,” Jackson said. “However, there was a problem that took it out of service for a brief period of time. During that time the Sewerage and Water Board was able to keep up with the drainage flow using the large diesel pumps at the station.”
But Heitmeier disputed that, saying the diesel pumps can only handle 25 percent of the load. He says he's meeting with sewer and water chief Marcia St. Martin and Corps District Commander Col. Edward Flemming next week to make sure the problems are corrected.
"We need to make sure we hit our marks on the next event that happens,” Heitmeier said. “We do know that we will lose power again before a storm, and we have to make sure that it's operational for that next time.”