Bad Pumps (New Ones) In New Orleans

Pumps put in place by the Army Corps of Engineers pump water from New Orleans' 17th Street Canal to Lake Pontchartra in New Orleans, Saturday, March 10, 2007. The pumps and floodgate are designed to control the water level in the drainage canals during a storm event. AP

The U.S. 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 in a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

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.

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.

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 Florida. The company was founded in 1926 and supplies flood control and irrigation pumps all over the world.

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. 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 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 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.

  • Alfonso Serrano

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