Big Pumps in the Big Easy

Last year I had the chance to tour two of the pumping facilities designed to keep New Orleans dry.

Last year I had the chance to tour two of the pumping facilities designed to keep New Orleans dry. In the hours immediately after Katrina blew through, I was pleased to see that the city hadn’t flooded and the pumps were doing their job. And then the levies broke and everything changed.

I’ve toured a fair number of water-related facilities in my capacity as editor of WaterWorld, but the New Orleans pumping facilities were memorable both for their technology and their history.

The pumping system was an interesting mix of old and new pumps. And BIG pumps - typing big in all caps doesn’t even do them justice. Before the flood, the New Orleans’ area pump stations had the capacity to move 42,000 cubic feet per second or a little over a billion gallons an hour.

One such station, the Bonnabel Pumping Station on Lake Pontchartrain, has three horizontal and two vertical A-C Custom pumps. The vertical pumps have a capacity of 135,000 gpm, while the higher volume horizontal pumps have a capacity of 500,000 gpm.

The backbone of the system, however, were large screw pumps developed by Albert Baldwin Wood, a New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board engineer. Wood developed his first screw pump in 1912. His innovative pump design gave New Orleans a fighting chance in the war against the water that surrounds it. Almost 50 of Wood’s original pumps are still in use in New Orleans today.

G. Joseph Sullivan, General Superintendent of the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, gave a presentation during our tour of Pump Station #1. He spoke with pride when discussing the old pumps. It was obvious that the clean, quiet facility was well maintained and staff had a strong sense of ownership when it came to their pumps.

That sense of ownership was exemplified by a group of about 300 water board engineers and operators who stayed on the job as Hurricane Katrina swept over the city, risking their lives in the process. As floodwaters from broken levis engulfed the city, many of the pump stations were inundated.

According to reports, one group of operators at Pumping Station No. 5 had to swim to safety across the Florida Canal in eastern New Orleans. Another group of 12 men were trapped at Pumping Station No. 4. They were forced to make a makeshift boat out of a fence and managed to float to safety. Thankfully, all those on duty during the storm survived, according to a spokesman for the Water Board.

When I think about the low pay and lack of recognition most water system operators experience, it’s hard to imagine such dedication.

My heart goes out to the people of New Orleans. The idea of an entire city devastated, evacuated, and its populace scattered to the four winds is difficult to comprehend. How do you even begin to restore what once was? Not only were homes destroyed, but the basic infrastructure of a city and the businesses that provide livelihood for its residents.

I look around at my warm home, my comfortable life, and shudder to think what a fragile world we live in.

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