Water Lines Remain Shattered in New Orleans
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
It's been two and a half years since Hurricane Katrina, and the water lines in New Orleans are still shattered, which means the city is losing tens of millions of gallons of fresh water a day. The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board is so busy patching it up that it hasn't begun to replace any pipes, and so deeply in debt that it has to beg FEMA for help.
NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT: Water main break in the 2600 block of St. Rock. Truck 241 is on the way.
(Soundbite of horn honking)
BURNETT: The crew in yellow hard hats pulls on hip boots and slides a hose into a flooded manhole. After 10 minutes, the water is out. Kevin Bell frowns at the source, a steady stream arching from an ancient iron joint.
Mr. KEVIN BELL (New Orleans Sewage and Water): What we have to do, we've got sparking tube. I'll push the last back in the seal, the water from leaking out. If that don't work, then we have to cut this entire manhole out and change the whole valve.
BURNETT: It looks like a really, rusty old pipe.
Mr. BELL: Yeah, this pipe's been in the ground for about 100 years.
BURNETT: Which would mean they laid this cast iron water main and others like it all over town in the early 20th century, around the time legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden was starting to play jazz.
Again, Kevin Bell and co-worker Scott Washington.
Mr. BELL: To me personally, all the pipes in the city of New Orleans need to be changed, but the government's not going to give no money to do this. Every street needs new pipes.
Mr. SCOTT WASHINGTON (New Orleans Sewage and Water): It's going to be a hard job to take care of.
BURNETT: If some customers regarded the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board as a somewhat bloated and sluggish utility before the storm, it's positively heroic today. After Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers said it would take months to pump out the city, but the water board's giant storm drainage pumps did it in less than two weeks.
Throughout the deluge and its aftermath, 300 employees stayed on the job. A few weeks after Katrina, then pump operator Ricky Ray described the ordeal to NPR.
Mr. RICKY RAY (Pump operator, New Orleans): First night, the mosquitoes weren't too big. Second night, they was bigger. The third night, they was like B-29s in the window, and the water was going septic. You could look, you know, it wasn't moving. It was laying. I said, we've got to get the hell out of here. But there was other people drowning, so we're waving them on. Go and help other people first, because we was all right.
BURNETT: Today, most customers probably don't realize how messed up the city's plumbing is. The toilets flush, the showers work and the old brick pump stations quickly drain the low-lying city after a heavy rain. What they don't see are the hemorrhaging water and sewer lines.
The water board has to keep the entire system pressurized, 1,600 miles of pipes, so there's enough water pressure for firefighters. But the more water they put in, the more it leaks. The utility estimates it's leaking 50 million gallons a day, enough to fill 75 Olympic pools. FEMA suspects the loss rate is more like 90 million gallons a day. Water board officials estimate they need more than $800 million in repairs that FEMA has not approved, and the utility is already in debt more than $500 million.
Ms. MARCIA ST. MARTIN (Director, New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board): The numbers are what they are. And I think if we look at it as being scary, then we'll allow ourselves to be frightened. Our success from August 29th forward has been because of positive thinking.
BURNETT: Marcia St. Martin is executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board.
Ms. ST. MARTIN: We're very pleased at where we are as a team. We're not pleased with the amount of money we had to borrow to make it happen. We're not pleased that we're still on the begging end. Okay, this should be a business decision. Our asset existed on August 29th, there should be no question that that asset should be replaced.
BURNETT: Replaced or repaired? That's a critical distinction. FEMA says it's statutorily restricted to putting the system back the way it was, not improving it. And FEMA'S utility czar in New Orleans, Chris Coletti, says the city was leaking 60 million gallons a day before the storm.
Mr. CHRIS COLETTI (FEMA): But as far as like replacing the whole system, we have no mandate to do that. Just like we don't have a mandate to go into just any other city right now and replace everybody's aging infrastructure, which is where all the large cities have been. I think if you look at any…
Unidentified Man: Philadelphia, Chicago, New York.
Mr. COLETTI: …Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. And they've been behind. And then every year, they get even further behind.
BURNETT: The difference is that the other cities are not trying to recover from what the American Water Works Association called at the time the most catastrophic failure of any city in modern American history.
So far, because only two-thirds of New Orleans residents have returned home, general superintendent Joe Sullivan says…
Mr. JOE SULLIVAN (General superintendent, New Orleans Water and Sewage): We're still far below our customer base, and we're not selling enough water.
BURNETT: There are drought-prone areas of the country where every drop of water is precious. New Orleans is not one of them.
Mr. SULLIVAN: We're sitting at the low end of the greatest source of water in the world - the Mississippi River. We have all the water we could ever conceive that you could use, and now we're conserving it, and it reduces our water bills.
BURNETT: A message from the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board: Take long showers, wash your clothes often, and don't forget to water your lawn. Whatever you do, do not conserve water.
John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.