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2 S&WB managers 'missing in action' during crisis that led to boil water advisory

The employees were deemed "mission critical" and were not available during the crisis, which led to yet another boil water advisory that interrupted businesses and even closed water fountains at the Smoothie King Center during a Pelicans game Nov. 17.

NEW ORLEANS – Two critical managers who were supposed to be on duty during the time of pump and power failures that led to a boil-water advisory last month "bailed" at that critical time, Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Ghassan Korban said Monday.

The employees were deemed “mission critical” and were present at work in the early morning hours of Nov. 17, but they could not be found to provide necessary approval to bring a backup water pump online when several other pumps failed.

The delay cost the Sewerage & Water Board critical minutes to keep water pressure up and avoid conditions in which bacteria can form in the drinking water supply. A new water tower, built recently at a cost of $80 million, provided 23 minutes of extra time to fix power and pump problems, but it took 31 minutes to get the pressure back up to safe levels of 20 psi.

That forced the latest boil-water advisory that interrupted businesses and called for bottled water and closed water fountains at the Smoothie King Center during a Pelicans game Nov. 17.

“They were present and they were missing in action, not to be found," said Korban. "They knew exactly what their jobs were, they knew how to do it and they opted not to do it.”

City Councilman Jay Banks tried several times at a Public Works Committee meeting Monday to get Korban to explain what the two supervisors were doing rather than their jobs at such an important time. Korban had said "they bailed."

"'They bailed…' Does that mean they were ghosting and not on the premises when they were supposed to be?" Banks asked Korban. "When the thing went off did they freak out and say, ‘This is too much for me to handle’ and then run out? Were they sick in the bathroom? Where were they?"

Korban demurred, saying he could not share certain details before "the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed" on the investigation.

He wouldn't provide the names of the workers or their specific positions, but he did say they were needed to approve the use of a backup pump after workers had prepared it for use.

"Those two people needed to give the go-ahead to physically put that pump online," Korban said. "There was no reason for us to expect two individuals to flat-out not do their job."

Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer emphatically said employees who fail to do critical jobs should be fired. Council President Helena Moreno put it this way:

"These are individuals, particularly in these positions, who are dealing with life-and-death issues," Moreno said. "This would be like a uniformed NOPD officer seeing someone be assaulted and say, 'Oh, never mind, I'm not going to go deal with that right now."

Korban said one of the supervisors resigned and the other is suspended pending the completion of the Sewerage & Water Board's investigation.

WWL-TV had previously reported that on the day of the outage, one S&WB employee was in the pump building as the systems failed. That employee was running between two buildings in an attempt to fix the problem, but Korban said that is not an unreasonable staffing level for the Claiborne Pumping Station and the electrical switch house just a few feet away.

At the time, the S&WB said “operator error” caused a last-ditch effort to bring a backup pump online to fail at about 6:42 a.m.

Korban also testified that Entergy shut off power leading to one of the water pump stations at 4:18 a.m., more than four hours after a vehicle struck a power pole outside the Carrollton Water Plant. He said the power company had no protocol for notifying customers, including its biggest customer, the Sewerage & Water Board, when it has to shut off power as a result of an accident.

Entergy spokeswoman Melonie Stewart said the utility has since developed a new protocol to notify the Sewerage & Water Board if it needs to shut off power during an unplanned event.

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