NEW ORLEANS – The Army Corps of Engineers, rushing to meet President Bush’s promise to protect New Orleans by the start of the 2006 hurricane season, installed defective flood-control pumps last year despite warnings from its own expert that the equipment would fail during a storm, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The 2006 hurricane season turned out to be mild, and the new pumps were never pressed into action. But the Corps and the politically connected manufacturer of the equipment are still struggling to get the 34 heavy-duty pumps working properly.
The pumps are now being pulled out and overhauled because of excessive vibration, Corps officials said. Other problems have included overheated engines, broken hoses and blown gaskets, according to the documents obtained by the AP.
The warnings apparently came in the form of a 72-page “memo” (clearly, the definition of memo has changed):
In her memo, Garzino told corps officials that the equipment being installed was defective. She warned that the pumps would break down “should they be tasked to run, under normal use, as would be required in the event of a hurricane.”
The pumps, 60 inches in diameter and capable of moving 200 cubic feet of water per second, are run by pressurized hydraulic oil. The supercharged oil cranks up a hydraulic motor, which in turn spins water-moving propellers.
The pumps failed less-strenuous testing than the original contract called for, according to the memo. Originally, each of the 34 pumps was to be “load tested” — made to pump water — but that requirement for all the pumps was dropped, the memo said.
Of eight pumps that were load tested, one was turned on for a few minutes and another was run at one-third of operating pressure, the memo said. Three of the other load-tested pumps “experienced catastrophic failure,” Garzino wrote.
The memo does not spell out what would have happened if the pumps had failed in a storm. But the Corps has acknowledged that parts of New Orleans could be hit with serious flooding if the floodgate pumps could not keep up.
Since New Orleanians are intimately familiar with the term “catastrophic failure” — particularly in conjunction with projects by the Army Corps of Engineers — it was hardly necessary to “spell out what would have happened”.
Col. Bedey, who is in charge of levee reconstruction, says that the pumps would have “pumped water”, and there was no danger to the city. Of course, the Corps also took the precaution of bringing in “numerous portable pumps”, so evidently they weren’t nearly as nonchalant as they sound in retrospect.
Just in case, the Corps brought in numerous portable pumps last year and plans to do the same thing this year, officials said.
In the meantime, the Corps has paid MWI $4.5 million for six additional pumps and will use them to troubleshoot the defective ones, Bedey said. Four of those pumps were run on Saturday for more than an hour, and the corps said there were no problems with the test. They were turned on again Tuesday in a demonstration for reporters.
“The design is no different. There is no reason to see any differences in performance than what we saw here today,” Bedey said Tuesday of the original 34 pumps.
Clearly, something’s different.
Meanwhile, hurricane season starts again in June, and the Corps is planning to keep those portable pumps in place.