Weathering the Storm: Diary of a Hurricane Relief Volunteer

On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurrican Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States.

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On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States. Storm surge, flooding and high winds wreaked havoc on many water and wastewater systems as well as homes and businesses. Soon after, Black & Veatch approached the Water Environment Federation (WEF) about a pro bono, collaborative effort to assess and report Hurricane Katrina-related damage to wastewater systems in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The goal was to provide not just professionals but members of Congress and other policymakers with an objective assessment of the damage to wastewater utilities and recommendations for future steps.

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The Pascagoula district's control center was heavily damaged.
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A unique approach teamed volunteers from utilities, private companies, and state WEF chapters with Black & Veatch, an engineering, consulting and construction company, to perform the assessment. The volunteers conducted field visits with a sampling of affected utilities and followed up with phone surveys.

All participants donated time and expenses to the effort. WEF provided liaison with member associations and government entities as well as peer review and publication of the final report. The organization will also communicate results to policy makers. The Kansas Water Environment Association contributed money to cover its members’ expenses, while Black & Veatch donated services valued at over $200,000 for estimating, financial consulting, project management, and report development.

Ten professionals volunteered on three teams that spent a week in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, collecting information from utilities that found ways to provide the best possible wastewater services in even the worst of conditions.

The following extracts from the journal of one volunteer, Joe Botinelly, provide a first-person account of the site visits and insight about the dedication of the wastewater utility members - many still homeless - who worked tirelessly to restore services and protect their communities.

-Christy Cooper, Black & Veatch Project Manager

My wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Mobile, Alabama, in the summer of 2004, when my brother-in-law and his wife invited us to their home in Spanish Fort and took us to Daphne, Fair Hope, Gulf Shores, and other places throughout the area. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Illinois. After Hurricane Katrina, my sister-in-law e-mailed the family about not only the devastation in the area she once called home but also the lack of attention. “Dauphin Island was wiped out,” she wrote sadly, “but no one ever mentions that.” Maybe that’s why I found it reassuring that the WEF-Black & Veatch assessment of wastewater system storm damage included some of these overlooked communities.

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Joe Botinelly, Sewer Maintenance Superintendent, City of Wichita, Kansas, poses for a picture while touring Fair Hope, AL.
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SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 6. Cloud cover blocked the destruction from view during our flight from Houston. On the ground in Mobile, we saw it: trees uprooted, a causeway segment shoved sideways, a mastless sailboat on its side in the courtyard of a closed hotel. Conversation turned to the economic future of New Orleans and other communities.

Our team, dubbed Team Scrum, gathered at the Holiday Inn in Tillman’s Corner to review safety procedures and plan the week. Our mission was to assess collection system and treatment plant damage in Mississippi and Alabama.

MONDAY. Our work week began with an early drive to Harrison County, Mississippi. We noticed “Now Hiring” signs everywhere. On the curb across the street from the wastewater district’s temporary office a debris pile 50 feet long and four feet high offered a clue to the destruction. Computers labeled “damaged by Katrina” greeted us as we entered the office. Workers sat in front of computers on folding tables, with boxes of supplies and records stacked everywhere. There was one desk.

We learned that the district manages only the treatment plants and interceptors; member cities manage the collection systems. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and FEMA representatives had visited, and several requests to Congress had been made. Pass Christian, with million-dollar homes, was totally destroyed. Long Beach was mostly destroyed. Gulfport, Biloxi and D’Iberville were heavily damaged. With the destruction of expensive properties, 58% of the county tax base disappeared. Communities outside the area adopted some of the cities, providing equipment and expertise. What they needed most was money. The district had dipped into its reserve to keep operating.

The West Biloxi treatment plant sustained wind damage and operated on standby power for a week and a half. Getting diesel for the generator was a challenge. There was no flow for four days and then suddenly 4,000 gallons per minute, taking out the bar screens. Before the storm, operators were informed that evacuation was mandatory, but three of them stayed in the administration building.

Keegan Bayou offered a grimmer view. Outside the plant, tents and RVs occupied a park. Inside, miles of electric wire and countless pieces of damaged equipment filled the yard. Water had been as deep as the top of the doorjambs on the belt press building. We toured the sequential batch reactors and took pictures of debris surrounding nearby apartment buildings. None of the reactor cells were working.

D’Iberville had returned its water and sewer systems to operation three days after the storm. Because city fathers had purchased revenue-loss insurance after a previous storm, the city was the only district member that was not financially strained. We were told that 190 grinder pumps installed in 1985 in a federally funded experiment were still working in spite of salt-water damage. City personnel had sealed all severed cleanouts and water service connections, and they began reading water meters the day of our visit for the first time since the storm hit.

Our guide pointed to a shrimp-processing plant and a myriad of plastic bags hanging in trees, which once contained 2.5 million pounds of shrimp, lost to the storm surge. As we parted, he gave us directions to the coast, to see not only storm damage but also “an unmatchable sunset.”

The Biloxi coast scene resembled a tornado aftermath, with a much wider swath. Part of a flute lay on stairs leading nowhere. Signs said, “Don’t just look; stop and help” and “We will rebuild.” American flags stood bravely in the midst of ruin. Katrina destroyed people’s possessions but not their spirit. The sunset was indeed beautiful. We headed back to Mobile to compare notes.

TUESDAY. In Fair Hope, our contact explained that he learned from Hurricane Ivan, 11 months before Katrina, that people do not evacuate, and he planned his system’s response accordingly. Fair Hope sent crews to help Westwego, Louisiana, and had crews prepared to help Biloxi. Help came to Fair Hope from Yazoo, Mississippi, and Denton, Texas, even though there were no mutual aid agreements. Although power was restored after three and a half days, lack of power caused some equipment damage, and there was structural damage as well. Fair Hope has reserve electric power and reserve pumps but seeks federal aid to install backup generation at all lift stations. City-wide damage totaled approximately $200 million. The city lost no citizens and its rate base remained intact.

En route to the wastewater treatment facility on winding, tree-lined streets, we saw elegant homes and bright flower plantings. The facility was immaculate. It featured an advanced control system, which can be operated from a telephone. Photographs in the control room showed operators with an alligator captured at the plant.

The Marriott Grand Hotel took on seven feet of water. Nearby Pump Station 201 took on three feet, damaging motor bearings and a control panel but little else. Even the wallboard survived. Most residents left and the hotel closed during the storm, so the station shutdown caused no backups

Hurricane preparation at the Williams plant in Mobile, recipient of several WEF golden awards for outstanding operation, included going completely on standby generation, to prevent voltage spikes. Automated systems were placed on manual and the plant was evacuated. The plant sustained wind damage but did not take on water, protected by a mountain of coal next door destined for Alabama Power. In the summer, coal dust coats everything, people included, and ruins electronics, but this time the coal was a blessing. The utility had difficulty finding repair contractors but experienced no staff loss.

At Dauphin Island, the plant was two months away from completion of decommissioning when the storm surge moved up the completion date.

WEDNESDAY. We reached Gulf Shores later than planned, a result of traffic, fog, and a low tire. Gulf Shores staff applied lessons learned during Hurricane Ivan. Prior to the storm, operators removed lift station control panels for storage in a safe place. They rented portable bypass pumps instead of generators. The plant was without power for five days after Katrina. The system lost 1,600 feet of line to Ivan and less footage to Katrina as each storm cut a channel across the island. Repairs are expected to take another year. Gulf Shores wants to acquire more bypass pumps, but staff was told that FEMA would pay for generators but not bypass pumps.

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The Williams plant in Mobile was saved in part by a mountain of coal next door destined for Alabama Power.
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We headed back to Mobile to visit the collection system manager, who had endured many sleepless nights. We learned that Katrina’s surge was three to five feet higher than the 100-year flood for which the lift stations are designed. Eighteen stations went under water. Submersible pumps survived but the surge damaged control panels, SCADA systems, and variable-frequency drives. The utility had trouble getting repair parts because every utility on the Gulf Coast needed the same parts.

THURSDAY. Hattiesburg offered the team an opportunity to see 150 floating aerators in 500 acres of lagoons. The storm damaged 70% of the aerators, sinking three, but by the time of the visit most were back in operation. Hattiesburg’s population of 55,000 swelled to 75,000 after the storm. The sewer system adequately handled the increased demand. Storm debris was everywhere. The city had disposed of 1.2 million tons of debris and would need to dispose of another half million tons. Standby power was also an issue. The city asked FEMA for $1.5 million for repairs. The Corps of Engineers was repairing ditches, and city employees were doing the rest. The City of Bend, Oregon, sent 10 people to help.

FRIDAY. Friday morning we visited the West Jackson County Wastewater District. As in adjacent Harrison County, we learned that member cities own and operate the collection systems, whereas the district owns and operates the transportation and treatment facilities. Reserve funds carried the district through September and October, when it did not invoice member cities for service. The cities agreed that the district could spread the cost for those two months over the next year. Evacuation was mandatory, but two operators returned to their plants the day after the storm, and the entire staff returned within five days. Two displaced families were living with the district manager. The county experienced a temporary population exodus but most citizens returned and plan to rebuild. We were told that FEMA responded quickly.

Three treatment plants survived with little damage, but the 10-mgd Pascagoula plant took on seven feet of water. The exterior of the administration building looked undamaged, but the interior was gutted. Wallboard was cut off at three feet and the studs remained, but little else. The district control center, completely destroyed, was in the building. In the generator building, a green line marked the high water level. Water entered the generator while it was running, ruining it. Pump pads were intact, but pumps, motors, and controls were gone. The aerators sustained no damage. A pile of corroded pumps removed from service lay outside the maintenance building. Operators cannibalized parts from two clarifiers to return two others to service. Temporary wiring ran overhead between the two active clarifiers, and piping waiting for replacement RAS pumps was visible. The district’s first priority had been to get the lift stations running and then to get the plant operating. The plant bypassed for three days, but the manager said it met all discharge limits.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS. Data from site visits and telephone surveys will give an objective assessment, but to me a few points stood out.

• Help poured into the afflicted area from communities all over the nation. The amount of private help amazed many local officials.

• FEMA responded quickly and provided important assistance. Many officials expressed gratitude for FEMA’s role. It was my impression that the more heavily damaged the area, the less favorable the reaction to FEMA.

• Lessons learned during Hurricane Ivan helped Alabama communities prepare for Katrina. Mississippi communities are applying lessons learned during Katrina to reduce damage from future storms.

• Utilities depleted reserve funds to begin repairs and to maintain operations. Reimbursements for repair costs will help. Reimbursement for operating with a reduced rate base is worth consideration by state and federal governments. Utilities might consider revenue-loss insurance to help keep operating during the first months after a future disaster.

• Almost all utility staff members returned to duty within hours or days after the storm. Many made heroic personal sacrifices.

• Utility customers left the hardest hit areas and how many will return is unknown. People who have returned, or who stayed, show a strong resolve to rebuild.

I suspect that others saw more devastation than we witnessed. But I expect that much of what they saw was the same: true professionals returning to duty, assessing the wreckage, determining priorities, and restoring service without complaint; assistance pouring in from across the nation; FEMA, EPA, and DEQs on the scene; construction workers everywhere; property lost; and an uncertain future - but the spirit of the people unquenched.

--Joe Botinelly, Sewer Maintenance Superintendent, City of Wichita, Kansas

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