NEW ORLEANS -- A fire that broke out Wednesday night in a turbine that provides power to most of the city's pumping stations crippled that piece of equipment, leading city officials to warn of possible flooding today and during the weekend.
"We are at risk if we have a massive rain event that comes up on us at the last minute and creates the kind of flooding that we had," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said during a 2:50 a.m. press conference. "The power we have available to us now will not be sufficient enough to pump the city out in the time needed."
Pumping stations in Algiers, the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East were not affected, Landrieu said, nor was drinking water or sewer service.
The city sent out an emergency alert to the phones of most residents at 3 a.m.
Following the announcement, several New Orleans area schools announced closures due to the potential of possible flooding. Click here for a full updated list of school closures.
Three of the five power-generating turbines at the Sewerage & Water Board's South Claiborne Avenue plant were already offline when the fire broke out in one of the last remaining turbines about 8 p.m. Wednesday, Landrieu said.
He said the plant was now running on its last power source. "This is it," Landrieu said.
Officials later said the one remaining turbine could power 38 of the 58 pumps on the west side of the Industrial Canal on the east bank.
Crews were working throughout the night to repair the turbine that caught on fire, the cause of which remained under investigation early Thursday.
PROBLEMS COMMON WITH OLD SYSTEM
The fire only complicated matters for an antiquated system that has been the victim of age and poor maintenance during the years.
Four of the five turbines run off of an uncommon kind of electricity known as 25-cycle power, which the S&WB generates on its own. The fifth turbine uses modern 60-cycle commercial electricity Entergy provides.
The fifth turbine was the only one in operation Thursday and while it can convert its 60-cycle power to 25-cycle power to run the older turbines, there is a limited supply of power to spread among the pumping stations.
If rain pours over the city, operators at pump stations will have to call in to the Claiborne plant to ask for power to run the pumps. A regular summer shower likely would not be an issue.
But if storms such as those from Saturday and July 22 pop up and dump large amounts of rain across the city, pump operators from all east bank plants on the west side of the Industrial Canal will call for the converted but limited power to run their pumps. Not all necessary pumps will be able to run, and the flooding Landrieu fears could happen.
In the worst case scenario, Entergy service could be disrupted and there would be no turbines at all to operate not only the pumps, but the drinking water or sewer services.
“We are at risk,” Landrieu told the board during a special meeting called Tuesday, since there is no redundancy in place to get through an issue such as an outside power loss.
Landrieu ordered emergency repairs during the meeting and said he hoped the turbine that caught fire would be repaired by the end of the day, but there was no guarantee that would happen.
The city's police and fire departments and the Office of Homeland Security were on standby in case rains once again flooded city streets.
"We hope it doesn't happen, but we're going to prepare for the worst," Landrieu said.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' Office announced that Edwards will travel to New Orleans to meet with Landrieu and other city officials regarding the potential of severe weather.
The loss of the turbine was the latest blow to the S&WB, which came under fire in recent days after it was revealed that pumping capacity was reduced during floods on Saturday and July 22. S&WB officials had said that all pumps were operating at full capacity, claims that later turned out to out to be false.
S&WB Executive Director Cedric Grant announced his retirement ahead of a special City Council meeting Tuesday, after which Landrieu announced he would seek to have S&WB General Superintendent Joe Becker and S&WB Communications Director Lisa Martin fired. He said he accepted the resignation of Col. Mark Jernigan, who heads up the Department of Public Works.
Grant said at the start of a special S&WB board meeting that Becker had submitted his resignation effective Sept. 30.