forgotten Katrina heroes

A tribute to these brave men in the Times Picayune

New Orleans pump operators mark Hurricane Katrina anniversary
Published: Friday, August 27, 2010, 10:00 PM
Michelle Krupa, The Times-Picayune

When he saw the water rolling down South Broad Street, Willie Parker knew something was wrong.

A Sewerage & Water Board pump operator for more than two decades, Parker had known when he showed up for work that Sunday that Hurricane Katrina would push his team at Pump Station No. 1, near South Broad and Washington Avenue, to the limit.

“We expect a hurricane to put some rain on us,” he said. “It means that we’re going to be doing some serious pumping. You’ll probably have a full house: Anything that can pump water will be pumping water.”
The crew had managed to stave off street flooding in the teeth of the storm. So the deluge flowing toward the massive pump station seemed to defy logic.

“We pump down Broad Street. But the water was coming back up our discharge canal, back up to the station and dumping back in the street. That’s when we knew something was wrong. Drastically wrong,” he said.

“We actually watched the water walk up the driveway and actually come into the station. At that point, we’re locked in,” he said, adding that switching on the massive drainage pumps became futile.

“We can’t accomplish anything,” he said. “We’re pumping in a circle. We’re pumping that way, the water comes back this way. So we had to kill the station.”

Across New Orleans, the same scenario played out again and again as S&WB workers struggled to keep the city’s utilities operating even as the water rose. An erratic communication system meant most didn’t know that levee breaches made their efforts futile.

In the lead-up to Katrina’s fifth anniversary, more than 50 water board workers and administrators gathered Friday inside Pump Station No. 1 to retell survivor stories and to honor the work they’ve put in since, beginning with pumping the floodwater out of the city after the breaches were closed.

Many also bemoaned the fact that even though they report for duty during hurricanes just like other emergency workers — and put in their most strenuous work during the height of storms, when others hunker down — they don’t seem to get the same respect.

“Especially right after Katrina, nobody was paying attention to our operators,” said Bob Moeinian, superintendent of pump stations. “Everything was about first responders: Police Department, Fire Department. And our folks, who were trying to help the city get up and running, you weren’t hearing much about.

“We were kind of felt like we were left behind,” he said. “We’re always here. We never left.”

On Friday, Ricky Alexander recalled the moment before dawn on the Wednesday after Katrina that the two-way radio crackled to life inside his Algiers pump station.

Alexander, then a 26-year S&WB veteran, had heard about the catastrophic flooding across the river. And he had heard before bedding down the previous night that dozens of his colleagues were still stranded in S&WB facilities across the city.

But he’d also heard that boats and helicopters were expected to rescue them overnight.

As he heard the voice of pump operator Renauldo Robertson broadcasting from Pump Station No. 1, it became clear the plan had disintegrated.

“No one showed up,” Robertson said. “We need to get out of here. Is someone coming?”

“Do you need me to come and get you?” asked Alexander, who had brought his own boat with him to work.

“More than you know, Ricky,” his colleague said. “More than you know.”
Launching his boat from an Interstate 10 ramp at Earhart Boulevard, Alexander maneuvered the flooded city. He had to pass residents crying out for a ride, people balancing water containers on their heads as they waded through the water — and dead bodies afloat in the muck.
He rescued his co-workers at the Broad Street pump station, ferried them to Algiers, then returned to check four more S&WB facilities before nightfall.

A similar situation befell the 13-man crew at Pump Station No. 17, a mammoth facility nestled between Gentilly and Bywater. The elevated site took on 3 to 4 feet of water as more than 7 feet of water filled nearby streets.

Unable to run the electrical machinery and expecting rescuers to arrive soon, pump operators Michael Cummings, Lauret Price and Lonnie Johnson, along with others, paddled through surrounding neighborhoods in the station’s canoe.

They parceled out some of their own stash of food and water, and picked up stranded residents, including an elderly couple who avoided drowning by standing together on a chair inside their flooded house, the workers said.

Price estimated that the trio over two days ferried about 100 residents to the foot of the Almonaster Avenue Bridge before being rescued themselves.

All three men said they won’t hesitate to report again for hurricane duty, particularly given the ramped-up cache of supplies at their stations, including ample food and water, life jackets, fuel and boats.
“In situations like hurricanes, I feel like we’re just as important, or more” than police, fire and emergency medical workers, Cummings said. “If the water’s not pumped out, the cops can’t do their job.”

“I don’t feel like we’ve been recognized as much,” Price added. “But I feel like we’ve been of help, even if it was just the people we pulled out of the houses and helped them out.”


~ by maringouin on Friday, August 27, 2010.

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