The agency that oversees the storm surge protection system around metro New Orleans is set to take over permanent pumping stations at the mouths of the three canals that carry stormwater into Lake Pontchartrain.
The decision means the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, which faced withering criticism after summer thunderstorms flooded the city, would not be responsible for key parts of the system that keeps the city dry during tropical storms and hurricanes.
“There is no one else better able to do it,” said Joe Hassinger, president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East. “These are complex structures and it’s critical that, when called on, they perform.”
Wednesday morning, the flood authority voted to negotiate an agreement to take control of the pumping stations and floodgates, pending discussions with the Sewerage and Water Board and the city over who will pay for day-to-day operation and maintenance.
The flood authority estimates that will cost $4 million a year.
The three sets of pumping stations and floodgates, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are the last pieces of the $14.5 billion storm surge protection system authorized by Congress after Hurricane Katrina.
The pumps are located where the lake meets the city’s three primary drainage canals — the Orleans Avenue Canal in Mid-City, the London Avenue Canal in Gentilly and the 17th Street Canal between Lakeview and Metairie.
After years of delays, the $693 million pump and gates project should be finished by the end of January, according to René Poché, a spokesman for the corps. They will replace temporary structures built in 2006.
The pumps at the entrances of the three canals are different from the citywide drainage pumps operated by the Sewerage and Water Board.
The interior pumps, which operate whenever there’s rain, take water from the streets and push it into the canals, which feed into the lake. The pumps that will be run by the flood authority operate only when the gates in each canal are closed to keep storm surge out during hurricanes or tropical storms.
During Hurricane Katrina, storm surge flowed from the lake into the canals, contributing to the failure of floodwalls that caused most of the city to fill with water.
The corps is required to turn the pumping stations and floodgates over to a local government agency, in this case the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Poché said.
The state coastal authority never intended to operate the structures itself, planning instead to work out an agreement with a local government body.
For years, it was “common knowledge” that the Sewerage and Water Board would be considered for the job, according to Derek Boese, the flood authority’s chief administrative officer.
But New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu asked the flood protection authority to step in, said Ignacio Harrouch, chief of operations for the state coastal authority.
It “had no concerns about the Sewerage and Water Board taking over the pumps,” Harrouch said. “Mayor Landrieu had a different recommendation.”
Landrieu has been highly critical of the Sewerage and Water Board since heavy rainstorms flooded parts of the city in July and August, including areas that don’t typically flood during tropical storms.
During and after the flooding, officials with the city and the water board repeatedly said there were no problems with the citywide drainage system. That turned out not to be true.
Key pumping stations were hamstrung by downed pumps and the turbines that power them. A pumping station in Lakeview wasn’t staffed properly.
The controversy resulted in the resignation of the board’s senior staff, including Cedric Grant, one of Landrieu’s highest-ranking deputies and the head of the Sewerage and Water Board, and Mark Jernigan, director of the city’s Public Works department.
Joe Becker, the water board’s general superintendent, was also fired.
Since then, an interim management team has taken over the water board’s operations.
Boese wouldn’t comment on what prompted the shift from the Sewerage and Water Board to the flood protection authority, other than to say his agency is “very comfortable” handling complex flood control systems.
“Quite frankly, we know that when the water comes, our systems will work,” Boese said.
Since construction started, all five government bodies — the city, the state coastal authority, the corps, the water board and the flood protection authority — have talked about who would run the pumping stations when they were finished. Those discussions stepped up this summer as the project neared completion.
“Certainly after the August event … we started having more discussions with the flood authority,” though that wasn’t the only factor, said Ryan Berni, the city’s deputy mayor for external affairs.
With a staff of more than 200, the flood protection authority already runs the hurricane protection system surrounding metro New Orleans. That includes several hundred miles of levees and floodwalls, 250 flood gates, about 100 drainage valves and eight other complex structures, including storm-surge barriers.
“The strong consensus is we can do it, we should do it, we can afford to do it,“ Hassinger said.
The three pumping stations at the outfall canals will be operated in coordination with those structures, said Erin Burns, a spokeswoman for Landrieu. Given the need for clear communication, “the flood control structures and the pumping stations should be under the control of the same management,” she said.
When the floodgates at the canals are closed, those pumps must also be coordinated with interior pumps channeling stormwater throughout the city. The Sewerage and Water Board will continue to operate the interior pumps.
Right now, the corps runs temporary pumps at the mouth of the outfall canals, and Poché said the two agencies haven’t had any problems communicating during storms. Boese said he doesn’t foresee any problems either.
“We are prepared to staff and manage the stations,” Boese said, adding that current staff has participated in training by the corps for the past several months.
Jeff Adelson, a reporter with The New Orleans Advocate, contributed to this article.
This story was updated after publication to include a comment from Ryan Berni, the city’s deputy mayor for external affairs. (Dec. 6, 2017)