La. governor lashes out over faulty pumps
NEW ORLEANS – Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco lashed out at the Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday for installing defective pumps at three major drainage canals just before the start of last summer’s hurricane season.”This could put a lot of our people in jeopardy,” Blanco said. “It begs the question: Are we really safe?”She called for a congressional investigation into how the Corps allowed it to happen.Citing internal documents, The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the Corps installed the 34 pumps last year in a rush to fix the city’s flood defenses, despite warnings from one of its experts that the machinery was defective and likely to fail in a storm.At the same time, the Corps, the White House and state officials were telling residents that it was safe to come back to New Orleans, which was devastated in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina breached the city’s floodwalls.On Wednesday, Donald Powell, the administration’s Gulf Coast hurricane recovery czar, said that he was never shown the memo, and that assurances he made that New Orleans was as safe as or safer than it was before Katrina were based on information he got from the Corps.”We were asking the Corps to do the job as fast as possible to get the condition of the levee back to make it as safe as possible,” Powell said. “That was the primary goal above all goals – safety in the region.”Becaue the 2006 hurricane season was mild, the new pumps were never put to the test.The Corps and the politically connected manufacturer of the equipment, Moving Water Industries Corp. of Deerfield Beach, Fla., are still struggling to get the 34 pumps, designed and built under a $26.6 million contract, working properly.The pumps have been plagued by excessive vibration, overheated engines, broken hoses and blown gaskets.”You want to build confidence, but you have to tell it like it is,” said Gwen Bierria, 65, who is rebuilding her home with her husband next to the London Avenue canal, one of two canals that were breached during Katrina and flooded vast sections of the city.”It’s like being pregnant, sooner or later it’s going to show,” she said. “And Katrina was a big-time show.”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.The U.S. Justice Department sued MWI 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.As for whether the city was as safe as the Corps claimed, Powell said: “We got through a hurricane season without a hurricane so we didn’t have to answer that question.”But he said residents should not panic as the new hurricane season approaches. “The corps is working as fast it can to get the systems back up. The levee system is better than it has ever been,” he said.The Corps said it decided to press ahead with installation of the pumps because some pumping capacity was better than none.The 34 pumps were installed in the drainage canals that take water from this bowl-shaped, below-sea-level city and deposit it in Lake Pontchartrain. They 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.—Associated Press writer Melinda Deslatte contributed to this story from Baton Rouge.