UPDATE: After this story aired on Eyewitness News at 6 p.m. the city responded that Mayor Landrieu was not notified of the turbines being down in March.
NEW ORLEANS -- The Sewerage and Water Board declared an emergency in March after losing all four turbines that generate the unusual type of power that runs the majority of the city’s drainage pumping capacity, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office says he was never informed.
The previously unreported failure comes to light as Landrieu says he is continuing to learn more about power problems that plagued the drainage system during the flash floods of July 22 and Aug. 5.
The power failure is similar to the one last week that led Landrieu to declare a state of emergency and warn New Orleanians that their city was vulnerable to flooding in a modest summer thunderstorm.
Landrieu’s appointed executive director of the S&WB, Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant, certainly knew about the March turbine failures, which apparently forced the system to rely on a backup generator.
Grant asked the board’s Finance Committee on March 13 to declare an emergency to address the failure. Grant has the authority to spend up to $1 million without board approval, but a review of meeting minutes and video showed he got the approval to spend $500,000 on repairs under a no-bid, emergency contract.
“Basically, we’re fixing some turbines,” Grant said as he told the committee what happened. He and others broke into laughter as he said that.
“The lay summary is, we were headed toward a blackout,” a complete power failure at the city's pumping stations, said Scott Jacobs. Jacobs served as president pro tem of the board but announced his resignation last week, blaming Landrieu for scapegoating the agency for the city’s inability to address the problems.
One of the agency leaders blamed for misinforming the public about how many pumps were in service during the Aug. 5 event was Joe Becker, the S&WB general superintendent. He also spoke at the March 13 committee meeting, explaining further what happened on March 7.
“For a period of time we weren’t generating any 25-cycle -- we didn’t have any ability to produce power at the Sewerage and Water Board,” Becker said. Becker's reference is to 25-cycle power, the self-generated and antiquated frequency that powers most of the S&WB's pumps. Most modern equipment runs on 60-cycle power, which is what utilities provide.
Asked if the mayor was ever informed about the March power failure, Landrieu spokesman Tyronne Walker said, “Unequivocally, no.”
Landrieu is the president of the Sewerage and Water Board, but normally has a designee attend meetings on his behalf. His designee, Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Hebert, was not present at the March 13 meeting.
The mayor’s office spent most of the afternoon trying to get information about the emergency declaration after WWL-TV asked about it.
“If someone had flagged this issue, I assure you the mayor would have taken that meeting,” Walker said.
In fact, Landrieu indicated in an interview last week that he was particularly frustrated that nobody reached out to him to say how dire the situation with the turbines had become.
Landrieu complained Thursday that “someone at the Sewerage and Water Board didn’t ring the bell” about the impact of having two of the city’s four 25-cycle turbine generators unexpectedly go out of service. With Turbine No. 4, which has been out of service since 2012, not expected to be back in operation until this December, that left only one unit, Turbine No. 1, that could produce the lower-frequency electricity that fuels 52 percent of the pumping capacity.
That turbine generates about 13 megawatts of electricity, which is not enough power to run all of the pumps designed for 25-cycle power, said Bob Moeinian, a former S&WB chief of operations.
It’s no secret that the S&WB power plant on South Carrollton Avenue is in disrepair. Earlier power failures caused drops in water pressure and a series of boil-water advisories. In 2011, Landrieu called the power plant the “most critical piece” of the agency’s many problems, and later that year the city received $150 million from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program specifically to take individual turbines out of service and refurbish them.
Turbine No. 4 has been undergoing those repairs since January 2012, but the losses of Turbine No. 3 in May and Turbine No. 5 in July were not expected.
Turbine No. 6 runs on modern 60-cycle power, the same frequency as the power provided by the Entergy grid. The S&WB can use converters to switch 60-cycle power to 25-cycle and vice-versa. It can also draw power from the grid. But Landrieu confirmed Sunday that at least part of the reason that pumps could not be turned on or went on late Aug. 5 had to do with a lack of power generation.