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.
Col. Jeffrey Bedey, who is overseeing levee reconstruction, insisted the pumps would have worked last year and the city was never in danger. Bedey gave assurances that the pumps should be ready for the coming hurricane season, which begins June 1.
The Corps said it decided to press ahead with installation, and then fix the machinery while it was in place, on the theory that some pumping capacity was better than none. And it defended the manufacturer, which was under time pressure.
“Let me give you the scenario: You have four months to build something that nobody has ever built before, and if you don’t, the city floods and the Corps, which already has a black eye, could basically be dissolved. How many people would put up with a second flooding?” said Randy Persica, the Corps’ resident engineer for New Orleans’ three major drainage canals.
The 34 pumps — installed in the drainage canals that take water from this bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city and deposit it in Lake Pontchartrain — represented a new ring of protection that was added to New Orleans’ flood defenses after Katrina. The city also relies on miles of levees and hundreds of other pumps in various locations.
The drainage-canal pumps were custom-designed and built under a $26.6 million contract awarded after competitive bidding to Moving Water Industries Corp. of Deerfield Beach, Fla. It was founded in 1926 and supplies flood-control and irrigation pumps all over the world.
Ties to Jeb Bush
MWI is owned by J. David Eller and his sons. Eller was once a business partner of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a venture called Bush-El that marketed MWI pumps. And Eller has donated about $128,000 to politicians, the vast majority of it to the Republican Party, since 1996, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
MWI has run into trouble before. The U.S. Justice Department sued the company in 2002, accusing it of fraudulently helping Nigeria obtain $74 million in taxpayer-backed loans for overpriced and unnecessary water-pump equipment. The case has yet to be resolved.
Because of the trouble with the New Orleans pumps, the Corps has withheld 20 percent of the MWI contract, including an incentive of up to $4 million that the company could have collected if it delivered the equipment in time for the 2006 hurricane season.
Misgivings about the pumps were chronicled in a May 2006 memo provided to the AP by Matt McBride, a mechanical engineer and flooded-out Katrina victim who, like many in New Orleans, has been closely watching the rebuilding of the city’s flood defenses.
The memo was written by Maria Garzino, a Corps mechanical engineer overseeing quality assurance at an MWI test site in Florida. The Corps confirmed the authenticity of the 72-page memo, which details many of the mechanical problems and criticizes the testing procedures used.
About a dozen of the 34 pumps on order were already in place in New Orleans when Garzino wrote her report, according to Bedey.
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 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.
Garzino, a Corps employee with the agency’s Los Angeles district, was one of many personnel brought in after Katrina. Her memo was sent to Col. Lewis Setliff III, head of a task force assigned to rebuild the flood defenses.
Setliff did not return a call for comment. Garzino declined to discuss the memo.
MWI vice president Dana Eller said Garzino’s conclusions about the pumps were premature. “She was there when we turned on the switch,” he said. “If you put your garden hose on and it’s leaking a bit, you’d tighten the garden hose. So that’s what we did.”
Bedey said some of what Garzino wrote was alarming and “caused me to ask a series of questions” about the reliability of the pumps. But he said they would have pumped water if they had been needed last hurricane season.
Portable pumps as backup
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.
Corps spokesman Rob Brown said MWI has paid for all other expenses incurred in fixing the pumps — shipping them back and forth from a facility in Gray, La., and installing and reinstalling them.
Katrina’s storm surge caused water on Lake Pontchartrain to back up into the city’s drainage canals. The canal walls gave way, and about 80 percent of New Orleans flooded. Nearly 1,600 people in Louisiana died in the storm and its aftermath.
After the storm, the Corps decided to install floodgates at the mouths of the major canals. While that would keep water from Lake Pontchartrain from backing up in the canals, it would also prevent water pumped out of the city from flowing into the lake.
So the Corps installed pumps behind the floodgates to move water into the lake when the gates were closed. Each pump is designed to push about 200 cubic feet of water a second.
“We didn’t have the luxury to go through a two-, three-year design and planning phase,” Bedey said. “We had to get closure structures in place.”
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.