NEW ORLEANS — With another named storm barreling toward New Orleans, the city’s antiquated drainage system is once again missing a main power generator for running the drainage pumps.
Turbine 4, a 100-year-old steam turbine that the city’s Sewerage and Water Board purchased in the 1960s, has been both a major source of power for about half of the city’s 99 drainage pumps, and a major source of mechanical headaches in recent years.
It broke again Sunday, when one of the main bearings inside the generator failed, according to Sewerage and Water Board General Superintendent Bob Turner. S&WB Executive Director Ghassan Korban said it would take four-to-six weeks to get Turbine 4 back online with its 20 megawatts of old-fashioned, low-frequency electricity needed to run the city’s oldest drainage pumps.
The loss of Turbine 4, along with Turbine 5’s demise in December, has reduced the agency’s ability to produce its own power by 40 megawatts, about half of the full redundancy it hopes for in a major storm.
Fortunately, Hurricane Zeta is a fast-mover and not expected to be a major rainmaker in New Orleans, but the Sewerage and Water Board also relies on electricity from the power utility Entergy to run its newer style of drainage pumps, and if Zeta’s winds knock out Entergy power, the Sewerage and Water Board’s in-house power could easily become overtaxed.
Turner said the S&WB plans to have more staff at the ready to use a “non-traditional power distribution plan” if one of the other turbines, primarily the smaller Turbine 1 and the newer Turbine 6, were to trip offline during the storm.
Turbine 4’s tortured history came to light after the unexpected and widespread flooding during a major downpour in August 2017. Turbine 4 was broken at the time and in its fifth year of futile repairs.
Our WWL-TV Down the Drain investigation reviewed hundreds of pages of Sewerage and Water Board financial records and contracts to learn that the agency had received $140 million from FEMA to improve its drainage infrastructure, but ignored decades of recommendations to purchase up-to-date power equipment and chose to fix the old turbines instead.
When Turbine 4 broke down in 2012, the Sewerage and Water Board opened it and found major mechanical problems. It launched a $12 million repair project. By the time of the 2017 flooding, it had spent $24 million and Turbine 4 still wasn’t fixed. And by the time Turbine 4 was finally ready to use again in February 2019, the total repair costs had topped $43 million.
That’s more than twice as much as the agency expects to pay for a brand-new, gas-fired turbine to replace Turbine 5, another old workhorse that exploded in December 2019.
Our Down the Drain investigation in 2017 identified several options that would have cost less even if the Sewerage and Water Board had cut its losses then, stopped trying to repair Turbine 4 and bought a new turbine instead.