NEW ORLEANS — Down the Drain is a WWL-TV investigation that explores what went wrong and where the blame lies for New Orleans' drainage crisis. Watch a brand new Down the Drain Investigation Tuesday, Sept. 10, at 6 p.m. on WWLTV.
For years, the headlines about the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board have been far from exemplary. Stories about broken pumps, power issues and staffing woes have been the norm.
But since the summer 2017 floods, there have been incremental improvements at the agency. The most pressing issue after those floods was the pumps.
Even as water sat in the streets the night of Aug. 5, 2017, former S&WB Executive Director Cedric Grant appeared on WWL-TV’s 10 p.m. news and said there were no problems to report.
“The pumps are operational, and they’re doing what they’re supposed to do,” he said.
Days later, it would be revealed that not all the pumps were on, as S&WB leaders indicated. Some were offline for maintenance, others were broken and some could not be turned on since there was no one around to power them up.
At pumping station No. 12 in Lakeview, for example, no one was on site until 7:50 p.m., according to S&WB records, hours after people first questioned if the pumps were on.
Staffing at pumping stations has improved since then, with few stations left abandoned.
“Where a station needs to be manned or staffed, we are making sure we have the right amount of staff there and the right expertise,” S&WB Executive Director Ghassan Korban said during a recent interview with WWL-TV.
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Many of the problems at the S&WB seemed to fester for years with city leaders unaware of just how bad things had gotten.
While the mayor serves as the board’s president, few regularly attended board meetings, often sending a proxy. Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu quickly became a fixture at the meetings after the 2017 floods, but that was close to the end of his second term.
Since taking office in May 2018, LaToya Cantrell has continued the new tradition of the mayor attending board meetings. It’s been a welcome change since so many of the problems now being worked on only seemed to get attention after a more critical eye was cast upon the S&WB.
City Councilman Jay Banks also now sits on the board, reversing a prior decision to remove councilmembers from the body. The City Council has also called the S&WB into its chamber on several occasions to get answers about problems and regular updates.
Giving updates for the last year has been Korban’s job.
The former commissioner of public works in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Korban inherited the S&WB’s myriad problems after a year of rotating interim managers. Since arriving in New Orleans, Korban has also helped to open communication between the S&WB and the city’s Department of Public Works, two groups that have similar missions but are separate agencies.
Outside of the board room and council chamber, procedures are now in place to help the S&WB and police learn about flooding as it happens.
Cameras have been installed at various spots around the city to monitor street flooding, and the NOPD has begun to quickly put out barricades when waters rise.
Meanwhile, a dozen underpasses around the city now have flashing warning lights installed to let drivers know they must stop. Previously, cars barreling into flooded underpasses were a common sight.
There has often been talking of living with water instead of immediately trying to pump out every drop that falls.
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One recent project that aims to stop overwhelming the drainage system is a massive retention tank under Easton Park in the Bayou St. John neighborhood. The tank can hold more 1.2 million gallons of water with the idea of pumping it out later.
And when it comes to the canals, there is a more concerted effort to try to clean them out to let water flow more freely. Recently, a car was pulled from a canal in Mid-City after having been hidden for almost 15 years.
Following the July 10 flood, the city apparently came close to facing another boil-water advisory. But thanks to the new water towers, designed to keep pressure from dropping, that was avoided, according to an after-action report.
Fewer problems with the pumps are reported these days. As of Aug.5, 119 of the 120 were operational and able to be used as needed. And all five power-producing turbines are once again in operation. Work to repair the turbines increased quickly after the city was faced with just one backup turbine weeks after the 2017 floods, costing about $88 million.
“It’s stable,” Korban said of the S&WB’s power-generating ability, describing the prior power supply as “questionable.”
The improvements have led even some of the harshest critics to admit progress at the S&WB, even if it has been slow at times.
“Once we get the water to the pump stations, the pump stations, I believe, are working rather well,” said HJ Bosworth, a civil engineer who has been a frequent critic of the agency.
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