NEW ORLEANS – A request to turn on a pumping station in Lakeview did not come until just before 8 p.m. Saturday, four hours after rainwaters flooded that neighborhood and others, the same time Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Cedric Grant held a press conference to say all pumps were "operational" as he shrugged off the flood as a side effect of climate change.
New Orleans Pump Crisis
S&WB logs also show that half of the major pumps in stations 2, 3 and 7 in Treme, the 7th Ward and City Park and Lakeview were off for hours-long stretches on Saturday and paint a picture of a system struggling not just to keep up with the amount of rain but to simply operate.
They also largely counter claims from city and S&WB leaders that all pump stations were manned and turned on, despite complaints from furious residents who said they saw no water moving toward drains as streets that rarely flood filled up with as much as 10 inches of water.
Those details are only a few revealed in pump station logs obtained through a public-records request by Matt McBride, a mechanical engineer and the author of fixthepumps.blogspot.com. The S&WB also posted the documents to its website Friday night.
A City Hall spokeswoman would not comment on the logs or what they revealed, instead reiterating that Mayor Mitch Landrieu has asked for a third-party review of the response to the flood.
Landrieu and S&WB officials have since admitted that claims that the system was working at full capacity were false. Grant, who has since announced his retirement, said Thursday during an S&WB Board meeting that the number of pumps offline had jumped to 16. That number was initially 7.
"The city initially said on the day of the event that the system was running at full capacity," McBride said. "They later revised that statement to say that they intended 'full capacity' to refer to the capacity that was available, minus the pumps that were already out for maintenance."
Most instances of pumps not being turned on were because of refusals of power requests from pumping stations that asked the S&WB power plant for electricity to power the pumps, the logs outline.
Central control is something akin to air-traffic control, with staffers deciding where to route power as requests coming in, using multiple factors, such as the weather and pressure on the pumps, to make its decision.
"There could be a number of reasons that a pump can't be turned on, among them repairs on other equipment outside the station or a lack of power being available and needed for other stations," McBride said.
But even if central control wanted to send power to some stations, it appears that was also an issue. The logs show problems with underground feeder lines going to some pumping stations.
For example, records show pumping station No. 3 at 2251 N. Broad St. in Gentilly at the foot of the London Avenue Canal had to grapple with numerous failures of electrical feeders not only this past Saturday but also July 22.
"They were so severe on the Aug. 5 event that at one point all pumps were shut off at that station," McBride said.
The station feeds to the London Avenue Canal and drains an area from Harrison Avenue to the French Quarter, including a large chunk of Mid-City.
Two of its five pumps were down most of the time on Aug. 5 and operators were at point told in no uncertain terms to not turn on the pumps.
"Approximately two hours after they were turned on, they were told by central control not to even try to run them," McBride said.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, voltage was lost to various pumps, and a transformer tripped at 3:38 p.m. Additionally, radios used to communicate with central control apparently did not work properly either.
The station, which drains neighborhoods including Treme and Mid-City, never hit more than 73 percent of its pumping capacity.
Pumping station No. 7, located on the Orleans Avenue canal at Interstate 610, had one pump running. The two other pumps are out of service. S&WB documents from Thursday's board meeting show that one of the two is expected to repaired by Aug. 23.
One of the two working pumps was running on "lite" status, meaning it was pumping at a reduced capacity, when it started to rain between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., records show. A request from the pump operator to increase its power was denied.
At 3:02 p.m., a request to increase its capacity, but central control instead told operators to turn on the third pump. Additional requests to increase power to the first pump was denied at 3:16 and 3:21.
Central control gave permission to run the first pump at full capacity at 7:15 p.m. – four hours after the first request. The two pumps ran until at least midnight, the logs show.
Another refusal was issued for pumping station No. 2 at 444 N. Broad Street, down the street from the Broad Theater and Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club clubhouse, which became symbols of frustration in a neighborhood that suffered flooding twice in as many weeks.
The logs indicate the first two pumps started at 2:30 p.m. When operators asked central control to start a third pump, it was refused initially. The log shows it was allowed to start at 4:12 p.m., the log shows.
Central control refused a request to run a fourth pump an hour later. It never ran.
Power issues also affected the pumping station, the logs show.
Central control refused to provide power for two pumps at pumping station No. 6 across the 17th Street Canal at the Jefferson-Orleans parish line.
The station also helps to drain parts of Jefferson and Metairie. Jefferson Parish officials, who on Friday said they were frustrated to learn about the pumping issues from media reports instead of from city officials, said they were not aware of the refusals.
Back in Lakeview, the logs show power wasn't requested from pumping station No. 12 on Pontchartrain Boulevard near the lake until almost 8 p.m. In fact, no one was at the station, which is not regularly manned, until that time -- even though an alarm at central control sounded at 3:45 p.m. after water began to rise.
The pumps at that station were not turned on until about 9:30 p.m.