NEW ORLEANS — On Friday, after heavy rains inundated Gentilly and New Orleans East, the Sewerage and Water Board said the city’s drainage system was fully operational but simply overwhelmed by 4 inches an hour of rain.
But Wednesday morning, the agency’s executive director told a new story, explaining that the main drainage pumps in Gentilly failed to start for more than two hours during the storm.
“We had three pumps we couldn’t start and when we tried to start them, they tripped offline,” Ghassan Korban said at the regularly scheduled Sewerage and Water Board directors meeting. “And it was a lengthy process, it was about two hours of assessment before we were able to figure out what went on and we were able to turn them on.”
That upset Deloise Dantzler, who lives a few blocks from the Gentilly area pump station, Pump Station 4. She said she didn't hear the pumps go on but watched in horror as the waters rose to her front steps and garbage cans floated down the street.
"I was really afraid it was going to get in the house," Dantzler said. "Just repair the pumps, and stop lying and say they work and when they're not."
A report sent Tuesday to the Sewerage & Water Board's oversight panel at the City Council said the main problem was that gates that should have been open to start the pumps were left closed. The agency later tweeted that those gates were manually operated, not automated.
Korban said the operator made a mistake but would not be punished and the real issue is that more of the drainage systems should be automated.
"It should never happen and obviously the operator missed a step," Korban said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. "And I assure you this operator will never make that mistake again."
The three pumps that failed to start are the largest ones at Pump Station 4 in Gentilly, which are responsible for 85 percent of the drainage between Gentilly Boulevard and the Industrial Canal.
Also Wednesday, the agency disclosed that one of four pumps at Pump Station 16 in New Orleans East also failed and large amounts of debris, including a port-a-potty, was found clogging the intake from the canal to that pump station.
At a City Council oversight meeting May 26, the agency acknowledged they had not cleaned many of the canals in New Orleans East, and promised to do so in 10 days. That was 15 days before this flooding event and Korban said he wasn't sure if the cleaning work had been completed as promised.
Korban said much of the debris that clogged up the canal leading into Pump Station 16 likely had flowed into the canal during Friday's rainstorm.
The delayed admission of a system failure is reminiscent of August 2017, when agency officials initially said rains outpaced pumping capacity after major sections of the city flooded, then were contradicted when WWL-TV investigated and discovered pump logs that showed several key pumping stations around the city failed to work.
This time, Korban acknowledged the pump failure at the board meeting after neighbors in Gentilly and City Councilman Eugene Green questioned why areas of Gentilly flooded that hadn’t flooded before.
Korban said the agency has been trying to retrain operators but wants to automate more of the system “to reduce those operator errors.”
“The skill is not there, the ability to hire and retain is not there,” he told the board. “We are managing with what we have.”
Green said Wednesday that was "unacceptable."
"This seems like in reality a step backwards because there was clearly something that we could do about this very serious flooding," Green said.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who is the president of the Sewerage and Water Board, said at the meeting that the city has the ability to monitor all of the drainage pumps across the city from the Emergency Operations Center in City Hall.
Asked, therefore, why the failure of the pumps was not reported sooner, Korban said he was disappointed his staff did not notify him. He said General Superintendent Ron Spooner was dealing with a number of problems at the time and did not learn about the pump startup problems at Pump Station 4 until after the issue was resolved.
Editor's Note: The story has been updated to reflect that the May 26 meeting was a City Council committee meeting, not a S&WB board meeting.