Pump station operators frustrated by management's inaction

Mechanical problems never addressed, delays and questionable decisions all leave the city at greater risk from unexpected rain.

S&WB pump station operators form first line of flood defense None

Down the Drain is a WWL-TV investigative project that explores what went wrong and where the blame lies for New Orleans' drainage crisis. Down the Drain was reported and produced by WWL-TV's investigative team: Katie Moore, David Hammer, Mike Perlstein, TJ Pipitone and Danny Monteverde. Infographics and multimedia design by Sam Winstrom and Kevin Dupuy.

Darrell Hayward lights up, his smile spreads wide across his face when he talks about his job as a New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board pump station operator at Drainage Pumping Station 7 near City Park.

“My mom will call me and say, well, we know it’s not gonna flood since you at work today,” Hayward said.

It’s clear Hayward takes pride in the job and its core role: Keeping the city, that’s geographically built like a bowl, from filling up with water when it rains.

“For the most part, we do our jobs on a daily basis and to be put in a situation where we're unable to do our jobs the way they should be done is frustrating,” Hayward said.

It’s the main reason Hayward said he spoke up at a special City Council hearing about the Aug. 5 flooding.

Hayward was called in as backup the night of the flood. He said, and the handwritten station logs confirm, Pump Station 7 could only run one of its two main pumps at full capacity because of a shortage of power.

Pump Station 7 only had two main working drainage pumps that night. One runs on modern, 60-cycle power. The other is older, and requires 25-cycle power.

A fire that crippled the turbines that generate power for the city's pumps only complicated matters for an antiquated system that has been the victim of age and poor maintenance during the years.Four of the five turbines generate an uncommon kind of el None

MORE: Pumps are powered by complicated, antiquated system

In 2012, the US Army Corps of Engineers spent $16 million at Pump Station 7 to build a large, 3-megawatt generator and a two-story building to house it.

But on Aug. 5, facing a shortage of power, the pump station operator at station 7 never turned the generator on.

“It would've made no sense to cut it on," Hayward said.

The generator can only power one pump at station 7, the 60-cycle pump. And the S&WB was already sending station 7 enough 60-cycle power to run it at full capacity.

They desperately needed 25-cycle power for the 25-cycle pump and there wasn’t enough to go around without overloading the system.

The lack of the most basic resource, power, prevented the crew from getting the water out of Mid-City, City Park and Lakeview into the Orleans Avenue Canal, flowing out of neighborhoods and into Lake Pontchartrain.

On Aug. 5th, the rain fell down and stayed, for hours.

Power is a consistent problem that has plagued the S&WB since the agency’s power plant began hobbling along on just 2 of 5 power-generating turbines in March.

If anything stops the system’s key pump stations from operating, the potential for flooding can go from possible to probable in minutes.

“Our stations are like relay stations. If you form a bucket line, one person hands another person a bucket and the other person dumps the bucket. So, if the bucket that is supposed to go out isn't working, then you have a big pile of buckets,” Hayward said.

And power was not the only problem that the agency had at the pump stations during last summer’s high-profile floods.


Drainage Pump Station 12--“It doesn’t work all the time”


The first big hint for Lakeview residents that their pump station was unreliable came on July 22.

That was the day of Harrison Banquier’s 4th birthday party. After a Batman-themed blast in City Park for their little superhero, the Banquier’s extended family headed back to their Lakeview home to watch Harrison tear into his presents.

As he opened the gifts, the heavens opened over Lakeview and Mid-city, leading water to pile up in the streets.

The flooding went well beyond playing musical cars, moving them to high ground so that none flooded.

“Nobody could leave. Everybody was just sort of stranded here. That's how I know it was 6,7 hours before we could move our cars. And that was July 22. That wasn't even Aug. 5. Aug. 5 we were stranded,” Katie Banquier said.

They were stranded for a second time in two weeks. The flood water from a simple rain storm led Lakeview to earn its name.

The water got so high Aug. 5, it entered the alley side of the Banquiers’ garage.

“It frustrates me. Because it's every time it rains -- Every time it rains, the entire neighborhood is on alert,” she said. “We can't leave to go on vacation and leave a car on the street because if no one's home to move it, we will lose our cars.”

Drainage Pump Station 12 and 7 drain Lakeview, a fact Hayward knows all too well.

When the water crept into the Banquiers’ yard, again, the handwritten logs show pump station 7 couldn’t fully fire up and pump station 12 was no help. It was unmanned for hours, until 7:50 p.m.
“There's only one pump there. It's a pretty big pump. It's 1,000 cubic feet per second so, but it works sometimes. It doesn't work all the time,” Hayward said.

The pump at station 12 didn’t fully work on July 22. The side of the log from that day is cut off, but it appears to say, “Tried everything. I was notified that their [sic] was a problem last week and D-pump could not be loaded.”

Maintenance work orders for Pump Station 12 indicate the pump was never fixed.

On Aug. 5, once a Sewerage & Water Board worker finally powered the pump on, logs indicate the pump at station 12 had problems pumping at full capacity again.

“It needs repairs. I'm not sure if they know it needs repairs. I'm pretty sure that they do. I'm pretty sure,” Hayward told the City Council on Aug. 8.

“I'm pretty sure they know. Because somebody has to go there every rain load and it's not like it's a one-time deal. They go in there. They fix it. It breaks again. They go in there, they fix it. It breaks again,” Hayward said in an interview.

Maintenance work orders show those fixes can come days after it breaks or years. In March of 2015, workers reported the same problem that the pump had this summer. The work order was never closed. And while welders did check the pump two weeks later, they noted work still needed to be done, but there's no indication that work was ever done, causing problems again when it was needed most.

“I think that we knew something like that was going on and it's not being reported,” Banquier said.

“That's a pretty important pump. It's pretty important when station 7 or station 6 is not operating at full capacity. Because station 12 can pick up some of the slack from those two other stations and vice-versa,” Hayward said.

And that was the case on Aug. 5. Six pumps were down Aug. 5 at Pump Station 6. And one of the largest pumps at station 7 was out as well.

“It affects where you want to live. People start to question; do you want to move to this neighborhood? Do you want to live in Orleans Parish? Should we move to Jefferson Parish? Is this the right decision for our family? And I know people that have made the decision that they're going to go to Jefferson Parish,” Banquier said.

To watch the full Down the Drain special click here. 


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