New Orleans storm pumps do not protect city

Published 26 August 2009

The Army Corps of Engineers quickly installed new storm control pumps in New Orleans in the months after Katrina; trouble is, these pumps do not protect the city, the the Corps could have saved $430 million in replacement costs by buying proven equipment

Huge flood-control pumps installed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina do not protect the city adequately and the Army Corps of Engineers could have saved $430 million in replacement costs by buying proven equipment, a federal investigation finds.

USA Today reports that the investigation by the federal Office of Special Counsel finds there was “little logical justification” for the corps’ decision to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the “untested” hydraulic pumps, which are meant to empty millions of gallons of water from the below-sea-level city during storm-related floods.

Citing the corps’ $430 million plan to replace the hydraulic pumps by 2012, just five years after they were installed, the special counsel concludes that a “proven” direct-drive pump design would have been less prone to corrosion and breakdowns. Based on an independent engineering review, the counsel says direct-drive pumps could have been purchased “more quickly, more reliably and without planning for pump … replacement.”

Hydraulic pumps are powered by pressurized oil. Direct-drive pumps use solid drive shafts. The findings, previously unreported, were sent to President Obama on 12 June.

The investigation confirms “serious allegations about the reliability of the pumping equipment” that were raised in a 2007 whistle-blower complaint by corps engineer Maria Garzino, the letter says. The findings raise concerns about whether a major storm could overwhelm rebuilt flood controls that the corps has set up in New Orleans since Katrina hit four years ago this week.

The corps declined to comment, but corps officials previously have disputed the concerns raised by Garzino, who was a supervisor on the pump project.

There are still questions about the contracting, design and safety of these critical pump stations,” Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), said about the special atorcounsel’s report. The corps must “demonstrate that these structures are indeed safe and will function properly,” Landrieu said.

The special counsel’s findings are the latest turn in a long debate over the pumps.

The Defense Department’s inspector general has reviewed Garzino’s concerns twice and ruled each time that the pumps, though not tested as well as they could have been, were a reasonable choice and should provide adequate protection until they are replaced with a more permanent system. Each time, the special counsel, an independent office that investigates whistle-blower complaints, has disputed the Pentagon’s conclusions.

The Defense Department review relied on an evaluation by an engineering firm that regularly contracts with the Pentagon, raising questions about the study’s independence, says Jesselyn Radack, an attorney with the Government Accountability Project, a whistle-blower advocacy group representing Garzino. “The corps has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars (rebuilding New Orleans’ flood controls) and is deliberately deceiving the public about the effectiveness of those efforts.”