By Kenneth Cooper
I had a dream I punched turbine 4 in the face. It was a wonderful moment. Light rain was falling. People were kayaking up Carrollton as I waded through the 3 feet of water that had already accumulated in the streets. I approached the S&WB plant on Claiborne, snorkeled pass the main gate, tiptoed by a sleeping pump operator, and before I knew it, there it was in front of me, the infamous turbine, the recent source of the city’s drainage problems.
I walked up to it, and without hesitation, wham, clocked it right in the face. Alarms instantly went off. Lights began to flicker. There was smoke. There was steam, a clear sign the turbine had fallen off-line, again. Just as it was about to explode, I woke up. Well actually, I was awakened by a neighbor, ringing my doorbell, a river of water gushing in the street behind her. “You might want to move your car,” she said. It was Wednesday, June 10th. People were stranded in their homes because parts of the city were flooding — you know, just another rainy day in New Orleans.
It’s always something, some excuse for the flooding — the new normal, global warming, a pump operator falling asleep, a pump not doing its job, the unpredicted intensity of a storm. Lately though, it’s been mostly turbine 4’s fault.
In December, turbine 4’s compressor failed. And when it did, operators tried to switch to turbine 5. Apparently, turbine 5 didn’t like being awakened at such an hour, (it was 2:30pm) because it promptly blew up, like not figuratively, but literally blew up. The blast radius permeated Hollygrove, shattering nerves, windows, and confidence. Two people were brought to the hospital as a result. Citizens were advised to stay away. Inspectors arrived. Turbine 5 was pronounced dead at the scene, no resuscitation, just a $20 million price tag to pay for its burial and replacement. The S&WB’s response of course was “We can’t afford that.”
On June 10th, turbine 4 was at it again. This time its governor failed and caused the safety system to trip. According to the S&WB’s After-Action Report, this happened because the temperature of the water used to cool the turbine was too high. In other words, it over-heated and fell off-line due to over-exertion, even though the turbine was running under max capacity. Of course, parts of the city flooded. The S&WB denies that losing turbine 4 caused the flooding but admitted that if it hadn’t failed the water could’ve been pumped out sooner.
Since then, turbine 4 has been downgraded. No longer the young, vibrant, energy supplier it once was, its output capacity has been downgraded from 18 megawatts to 17. That’s a loss of 1 million watts of power, and who knows how many hundreds of gallons of pumped water. Also due to its failure, turbine 4’s governor has basically been put on probation, to be monitored under the watchful eye of a non-sleeping operator.
Why does this keep happening? Questions abound. But there’s one simple answer. The system is old, old enough to where the S&WB can be considered a manager of antiques and rare artifacts. The drainage pipes, most of them at least, date back to the early 1900s.
Think about that. People who went through slavery were still alive back then. The car hadn’t fully replaced the horse and buggy. Yet, a city that was destroyed by flooding from Katrina 15 years ago is still relying on outdated turbines and pumps to push water through old, inefficient pipes. If something doesn’t change, one estimate has the city dealing with $8 billion worth of damage due to flooding over the next 50 years.
So, what do you say, anybody want to join me in my next dream? We can jump a turbine, bum-rush a pump, maybe tunnel underground and put our foot up a few pipes. Suggestions are encouraged. Who knows, they might even be taken up at the next City Council meeting.