Sunday, April 30, 2006

Roll Black Water

Where's Ed when we need him?
I'm not sure which is less surprising or more disturbing, the report that many of the lift pumps that move rainwater out of the city are still burning out because they haven't been properly repaired after the flood, or the news that the city's sewerage infrastructure was also badly damaged last fall.

Saturday night's forecast of three to four inches of rain should make the pumps issue number one, although I can't find any reports online Sunday morning of any street flooding. Of course, with the prospect a lot of standing water in the street and seepage everywhere from the decrepit sewerage system, the combination is not a promising picture. Rebuilding a few dozen pumps and lift stations will seem a small task compared against rebuilding the entire underground sewerage system.

After the flood, the prospect of seeing water in the streets is the most immediate and visceral threat. While reports of New Orleans elevation (or rather lack thereof) are greatly exaggerated, at least 50% of the city lies to some small extent below sea level, and some isolated areas as much as six feet. Without the pumping capacity of the Sewerage & Water Board Wood Screw Pumps (named for their inventor Albert B. Wood), rainwater would pond in city streets until it evaporated. The map here gives you an idea of who is most prone to flooding

The electric motors that drive these immense pumps (under consideration for designation as national historical sites, like the city's street cars) were submerged in the brackish waters of the flood, and several have burned out. While the Corps of Engineers is spending $40 million to repair the pumping system, the bids on that contract will only go out next week.

As for the sewerage system, an acquiatance told me months ago (while discussing infrastructure damage and reconstruction) that the S&WB sewerage infrastructure was already a mess due to subsidence. A pre-Katrina Bureau of Governmental Research report describes "an aging infrastructure buried in unstable soils. Much of the 3,000 miles of New Orleans' water and sewer system is more than 50 years old. Drainage pumps and the electrical generating plant that powers them were built at the turn of the century, and are still in service."

I should shut up before somebody in Washington remembers that we had this problem before the storm. We're going to need a large investment to restore all parts of the city's infrastructure, and Katrina may just be our best chance to get it. For now, the concern about the S&WB pumps and leaking sewage will have to get in line with incomplete levee repairs and foot dragging by the Corps on levee improvements, FEMA tardy flood maps, slow pay insurance companies and all the other components of life today in the "big easy".

Until the pumps are repaired, Orleanians will have to deal with the prospect of seeing the streets fill with water in a good tropical downpour. This is nothing new but after the flood, the vision of streets filling with water will take on the frightening aspect of recurring nightmare. If the pumping system can't be restored in short order, common street-level flooding will certainly be the coup de grace for slab-on-grade construction in the lowest areas, and push returnees toward the only sensible solution: elevating their new or rebuilt homes.

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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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