Jeff Adelson of The New Orleans Advocate contributed to this story
The New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board’s executive leadership urged quick fixes for broken turbines that power some of the city’s drainage pumps in the days leading up to the August 5 flood, but left the public largely in the dark about the potential problems the lack of power could cause, according to emails obtained through public records requests by WWL-TV and the New Orleans Advocate.
The hundreds of exchanges outline the crafting of carefully-worded news releases and public communications aimed at convincing the public the amount of rain was too much for any system to handle, even before senior leaders received any emailed reports about how the system was functioning.
Every time there's a big rain event in New Orleans, the S&WB’s central command generates an event summary detailing what power sources and pumps were working.
The emails seem to indicate that even after three years on the job, the agency's Executive Director Cedric Grant didn't know about the event summaries, that is, until the July flood.
Power Operator Eric Lebat wrote July 24, "Mr. Grant see the attachment, this is generated after rain events, it is sent to operations administrators. I would have thought that you would receive this after major events? I can send it directly if you like?"
Grant replied, “Send it to me directly, always.”
An email shows Lebat sent out the event summary to Grant and other senior staff members for the August 5 flood Sunday evening, the day after the rain. The emails do not indicate whether any members of the Landrieu administration, or the mayor himself, ever received a copy of it.
Even Monday afternoon, two days after the rainstorm, when Becker admitted to WWL-TV that not all of the pumps were working during the storm, Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni asked in an email, “They said 7 pump stations were not on. Could that be the ones in NO East that were not supposed to be on?”
Lebat’s reports contained all that information.
But Long before Lebat’s report was circulated, water-logged residents and business owners were demanding answers from the S&WB after the rain inundated Gentilly and MidCity. Like an unwanted house guest, the flood water came in quickly and refused to leave.
Responding to a city council candidate at 5 p.m. the night of the flood, S&WB Superintendent Joe Becker wrote, “We are very good at this and have earned an international reputation as leaders in storm drainage. However, we cannot pump as fast as God.”
The night of the flood, S&WB Intergovernmental Relations Manager Hayne Rainey twice emailed Grant, Becker and Deputy Director of Communications Lisa Martin asking if there were any pump issues to report.
At 7:34 p.m., Grant replied, "At central control every station is pumping."
But the pump station logs from August 5 show that wasn’t the case. The log for Pump Station 12 in Lakeview indicates it wasn’t even manned until 7:50 p.m.
The emails detail the crafting of news releases and communications with the public about the storm, blaming the flooding on the rain. In the hours and days after the flood, those communications all emphasized the large amount of rainfall and the system’s inherent inability to handle it.
Sunday, August 6, Rainey circulated a “storm narrative” among senior staff emphasizing that the 9 inches of rain that fell in Mid-City quickly overwhelmed the pumps. Deputy General Superintendent Bruce Adams replied, “I suggest using the rolling 24 hr hour [sic] total for Mid City which is now greater than 11 inches in 22 hours.”
Behind the scenes, even before the rain fell on August 5, the emails show the escalating concern S&WB leaders had about critical problems with the agency’s ability to generate power to run the pumps.
Only two of five turbines were functioning after the first round of heavy rain flooded the city July 22.
Becker emailed senior administrators about a meeting he had scheduled the day of the flood with contractors who were repairing one of the five turbines that power many of the city’s drainage pumps.
Becker’s email indicates he was scheduled to meet with them at the water plant at 2 p.m. that Saturday.
On Friday, August 4, senior leaders emailed each other about a three-hour meeting they recently held to try and get generators brought in to power the pumps in case one of the two working turbines broke.
Even though the board issued an emergency declaration in March because the agency was down to three working turbines, they didn’t secure the generators to serve as a backup until last week, after the public outcry about the August 5 flooding.
Many of the emails exchanged between S&WB staff begin with the wording, “Attorney/client privileged.”
Communications that include advice from counsel are exempt from Louisiana’s Public Records law.
But many of the emails, and even Labat’s event summaries, marked “Attorney/client privileged” were not sent to S&WB attorneys, but senior administrators. In fact, Labat’s event summary, distributed on August 6 did not contain the attorney/client header. The one distributed the next day did.
But the counsel for the S&WB must have determined those particular emails were not protected by attorney/client privilege because they were distributed in response to a public records request.
The records did not contain a single email to or from Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Communications Director Tyronne Walker said the Mayor would typically be called on the phone during an emergency.
The New Orleans Advocate also requested Landrieu’s text and social media messages sent and received during the event, but those have not yet been provided by the city.
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