After storm, city’s heart pumps again
September 14, 2005
NEW ORLEANS – The giant heart that makes this city’s life-sustaining water went into cardiac arrest at 5 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30. Its many chambered ventricles stopped pumping. The pressure in its six great arteries fell to almost nothing. The flow in its 350-square-mile circulatory system became sluggish and then stopped. At the time of its apparent death, the Carrollton Water Purification Plant was 99 years old. Today, it’s alive again, after three heroic resuscitation attempts, the last one successful. It’ll be in critical care for a while. But it’s getting stronger. The people of New Orleans could not let the Carrollton plant die – not if they want their city to survive. For a century, New Orleans has depended on the 70-acre complex of pumps and generators and pipes to draw water from the Mississippi River, treat it with purifying chemicals, filter it and send it out to the city’s half-million residents. The death and reanimation of the water plant is a story of ingenuity, self-reliance, loyalty and luck. It required doing something that had never been done – the first cold start of Carrollton since it opened in 1906. Before that could be tried, however, the workers who stayed at the plant had to fight a dangerous fire in the middle of Hurricane Katrina. In the flood that followed, they had to tourniquet-off a water-main break that was bleeding the plant dry. Along the way, many had to confront the fact that their houses were gone. “There are a lot of heroes here,” Vincent Fouchi Jr., the assistant superintendent of water purification, said as he and more than half a dozen workers described the events after the storm. Fouchi, who turned 40 two days ago, came to work the Saturday before Katrina’s landfall. He brought with him three changes of clothing and more food than usual for the work marathon everyone knew was required for big storms. He is now well into his third week. His wife and two children are in Jackson, Miss. His house still had water up to the eaves last week. He saw it on an aerial photograph. He says he’ll be here “until they send me home.” – – – The Carrollton water plant is like those of many old American cities, only more so. It is from an age of limitless steel, heroic engineering, and the belief that public works were such an accomplishment they should be housed in beautiful buildings. Carrollton’s 20-odd structures are blinding white stucco under tile roofs. Their windows have divided panes set in starburst patterns, surmounted by semicircular reliefs that look like giant red eyebrows. It could be the summer place of an Italian king. But much of it is out of date. Key functions operate on century-old specifications that simply can’t be changed without tearing the place apart. The plant feeds a distribution system in which 40 percent of the water is “unaccounted for” – not paid for by customers, who are the sole source of revenue. The water probably leaks into the city’s already soggy ground. A consultant to the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans recently estimated it would cost $4 billion to make the system fully modern. The plant has about 200 workers. When Katrina arrived, 111 were on the job. It’s hard to say exactly when things started going bad. But there was no question that something was very wrong the night of Monday, Aug. 29, when demand for water suddenly started to rise. The plant normally pumps 120 million gallons a day. When a big water main breaks, moment-to-moment consumption may go up the equivalent of 10 million to 15 million gallons a day as water gushes out of the system. The plant kicks in to compensate and increases its output to maintain pressure and flow in the distribution system. Soon after the height of the storm, however, demand rose the equivalent of 40 million to 50 million gallons a day, a step-up never seen before. It was something, Fouchi said, “that shouldn’t be happening in a city that doesn’t have a lot of people in it.” In New Orleans, water pipes run beside the roads, not under them. On many streets, live oaks grow over the pipes. When trees blow down, as hundreds did during Katrina, their roots pull up the small distribution lines, creating leaks. That was certainly happening. But it probably wasn’t the whole story. There must have been an immense leak somewhere. As a first step to try to stanch it, one worker, Christopher Fontan, 49, bear-sized and 51 days from retirement, went out into the storm and closed the 50-inch main serving the area where the instruments suggested the leak was. It is one of six huge distribution pipes, and closing the valve required 200 turns of a 10-foot-long T-shaped key, delivered down a hatch, to close. “It was a good move because we got instant relief,” said John Huerkamp, chief of operations. But other bad things had already happened. The city’s electric system had failed. The plant, however, has its own generators that supply part of its electricity needs. Its power system was running when the wind blew an eight-foot-high window and frame out of the wall of the powerhouse. Horizontal rain poured onto a motor control unit, shorting it out and starting a fire. The huge building, which contains six boilers and whose subroof is made of wood, began to fill with smoke. As the storm raged, a dozen men frantically collected fire extinguishers from nearby buildings and fought the fire. The depleted devices, in every style and vintage, were in three piles on the floor. “If it hadn’t been for these guys putting it out, this whole building would have been gone,” said George Belteau, the superintendent of power. But it wasn’t enough. When the levees broke, New Orleans began to flood, and with it the Carrollton plant. The water could destroy the generators, and with reluctance, officials shut them down. For the first time since Theodore Roosevelt was president, the plant stopped making drinking water. Over the two-way radio, the people in the plant could hear of the worsening plight of colleagues at pumping stations around the city. Some were being told to put on their life jackets and get to the highest place they could. At the Carrollton plant, the small trickle of people abandoning their posts became, briefly, an exodus. But about 65 stayed. “We had fought the battle, and we were winning. If we had not had a levee failure, we would not be where we are today,” Huerkamp said. “That’s why this is so horrible. We’ve never failed the city before,” said Marvin Russell Jr., the white-haired superintendent of water purification. By the Wednesday after the storm, gas-driven pumps had gotten enough water out of the powerhouse for Fouchi and the others to try a resuscitation. They were like medical students at their first code blue – except there was nobody with experience to teach them. They faced a chicken-or-egg problem: The boilers needed water to make steam to generate electricity to drive the pumps that could then replenish the water in the boilers and keep them running. If the boilers could stay up long enough, they could generate enough power to work the pumps that pull water out of the river and keep the system from running dry. The first try required manually filling the boilers and overriding all sorts of safety mechanisms. The plant came back to life for 20 minutes, but the boilers ran out of water and had to be shut down again. The operators regrouped and tried again the next day, with a firetruck delivering water to help prime the boilers. This time the system stayed up for an hour. On the third day, the plant had enough city power to run the pumps drawing water from the river, which flows by gravity into the acres of open basins and treatment tanks. This essentially “primed” the plant. This time it worked. The engineers fired up the boilers, which did not run out of water. The turbines made enough power to drive the high-pressure distribution pumps, keeping the boilers full. On Sunday, Fouchi and his colleagues started disinfecting the water for the first time since the storm. It’s not yet good enough to drink. But 90 million gallons a day are in circulation, driven by the big heart that’s back at work.