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Credit: Photo: Craig Guillot

Construction of a “safe house” near this and 19 other pump stations in Louisiana's Jefferson Parish will help protect workers from devastating hurricanes.

A day before Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, more than 230 workers were evacuated from stormwater pumping stations in the neighboring New Orleans community of Jefferson Parish; parish president Aaron Broussard made the difficult decision in the face of an impending Category 5 hurricane bringing winds of almost 200 mph and a storm surge nearly two stories high. While local public works leaders had an obligation to safeguard the community, they also had to protect parish workers.

As the hurricane passed, it took the pumping station crews almost 24 hours to return from their refuge more than 100 miles away in Washington Parish. Many residents of the communities of Metairie and Kenner—some of whom have joined a class-action lawsuit—argue that the flooding that damaged thousands of homes in the area was a direct result of the abandonment of the stations.

“When Katrina arrived and we were ground zero for a Category 5 hurricane, they evacuated to save lives,” said Ali Pirsalehy, drainage assistant director for Jefferson Parish. “All this happened as a consequence of that evacuation. We weren't hit directly but we don't know what would have happened if we were.”

While the issue likely will be debated for years to come, contractors and parish leaders are rushing to construct “safe rooms” at 20 pumping stations in the parish—a move that can protect both lives and property. Described by some engineers as “elevated bomb shelters,” the rooms are designed to withstand winds up to 250 mph, which would match the force of the most powerful hurricanes in history. Each safe house measures approximately 250 square feet, and each contains a restroom and just enough space for 10 people, a generator, four bunks, and critical supplies such as food and water. Pump station personnel will retreat to the safe houses when winds reach 60 mph.

“The good thing about the safe rooms is that they will reduce the response time,” said Pirsalehy. “As the storm has passed, we'll be able to come out and resume operations.” Downed trees, debris, and unfavorable road conditions prevented the workers from returning to their posts in a timely fashion. Neither the diesel nor electric pumps can run unmanned at stations.

The four safe rooms already in place before Katrina were only built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. Reda Youssef, director of the Jefferson Parish department of capital projects, said the department had planned to complete 20 new structures by the June 1 start of hurricane season at an estimated cost of $17 million. In conjunction with a new emergency plan, the structures would allow pump station workers to remain onsite throughout a Category 5 storm. However, at press time, the department had received only enough funds to complete eight of the safe houses.

The maintenance and operation of a typical pumping station during a storm calls for two operators and a team of up to eight screen cleaners, who clear the debris that constantly accumulates at the station during a flood. Jefferson Parish has 47 drainage pump stations with 130 pumps that have an entire capacity of more than 35,000 cubic feet per second—the equivalent of 16 million gallons of water per minute.

— Craig Guillot is a New Orleans-based writer.