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Pumps Under Pressure: Army Corps moves swiftly after storm

A helicopter lowers sandbags to fill the gap left behind the 17th Street levee failure.
A helicopter lowers sandbags to fill the gap left behind the 17th Street levee failure.

KPCC’s Molly Peterson has carried out an extensive investigation of an Army Corps engineer's claim that a key part of New Orleans' rebuilt hurricane protection system will not work, and she has found that claim could very well be true. In the first of four reports, Molly explains why New Orleans needed those new pumps.

Four years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina tore into New Orleans. Hundreds of people lost their lives when floodwalls and levees protecting them failed. In the years since, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked to rebuild the hurricane protection system.

Molly Peterson: Three drainage canals, long skinny fingers of water, poke down from Lake Pontchartrain to the heart of New Orleans. During Katrina, the canals swelled under pressure from surging water. Months later, Dutch engineer Jurjen Battjes walked along the 17th street canal, where a gash over 400 feet wide opened. He said someone should have cut the fingers off.

Jurjen Battjes: Because the way it’s now open, you are leaving the enemy penetrate your territory. And you have to defend along a long line of defense.

Peterson: Floodwaters that filled the bowl of New Orleans poured through these three breaches. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drove sheets of steel into the muck to close them, then began repairs.

The Corps studied the failures. It invited experts like Dutch engineer Battjes to review its work. He and others said the system in place before Katrina had too low a margin of safety.

Battjes: It’s human to take chances, huh? And now you get punished. And now you do better.

Peterson: For the Corps, better meant closing the canals with gates like teeth that drop down at the lakefront – and adding new pumps to keep a safe level of water in the canal behind those gates. So far the Corps has spent more than $450 million adding this new protection.

Carl Strock: Because of the failures in the hurricane protection system, some question the capability of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For those who doubt us, words alone will not restore trust in the Corps of Engineers. We are mindful that the public's trust is gained when we follow through on our actions.

Peterson: In 2006, then-head of the Army Corps, Lieutenant General Carl Strock, took responsibility for flaws in the system. Around the same time, Maria Garzino, a Los Angeles-based engineer for the Corps, volunteered to go to Louisiana to work on repairing the flaws.

Maria Garzino: I’m very proud and honored to be part of an organization that can respond in times of emergency like this.

Peterson: Garzino counts 10 years of Corps experience with civil and mechanical engineering and contracts, including on emergency projects in Iraq.

Garzino: We do this type of thing a lot. It’s not unusual.

Peterson: Garzino believed the emergency work would be routine. She says the stakes were not.

Garzino: To not have these pumps installed and working meant that the people of New Orleans were left where they were after the devastation, at risk and vulnerable.

Music: Robert Walter, “Parts & Holes,” from Cure All (Palmetto Records)

Peterson: The January after Katrina, two weeks after it opened bids, the Army Corps awarded a $26 million contract for the pumps to Florida-based Moving Water Industries. Garzino says that’s a fast schedule.

Public records indicate the company’s schedule was more aggressive than she knew. Even before the Florida company won the contract, it ordered 37 diesel engines from Caterpillar, at an estimated cost of more than $2 million. The winning company also requested custom pump parts called impellers from a foundry three days before it was certain to need them.

In a debriefing with the Corps, another company that bid for the contract, FPI, raised questions about the way Moving Water Industries, or MWI, won the project. The first voice is FPI’s Bill Miller. The second is Corps contract officer Cindy Nicholas.

Bill Miller: MWI had already ordered the engines, and everyone else said that would be awarded the job.
Cindy Nicholas: Well, I don’t know anything about that, sir. If they ordered them on their own, they must have taken a big risk.
Miller: Well, obviously that was a risk that paid off, let’s put it that way.

Peterson: The Army Corps maintains it properly issued the contract. Maria Garzino is a contract specialist, but her concerns go far beyond contracting. She was present when Moving Water Industries started to test the pumps in Deerfield Beach, Florida.

Garzino As we turned the machinery on it started failing. The more we ran it, the more severe the failures were.

Peterson: Tomorrow, we’ll examine the pumps the Army Corps personnel had hoped would prevent another Katrina.