U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Procurement of Pumping Systems for the New Orleans Drainage Canals

GAO-07-908R: Published: May 23, 2007. Publicly Released: May 29, 2007.

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To avoid flooding in New Orleans after a rain storm, the city's Sewerage and Water Board pumps rainwater from the city into three drainage canals which then flow unrestricted into Lake Pontchartrain. While critical to prevent flooding from rainfall, these canals are vulnerable to storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain during a hurricane, and consequently are lined with floodwalls along both sides to protect storm surge from overtopping the canals and flooding the city. However, during Hurricane Katrina, several breaches occurred in the canal floodwalls allowing significant amounts of water to enter New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain. In its efforts to restore pre-Katrina levels of hurricane protection to New Orleans by the June 1st start of the 2006 hurricane season, in late 2005, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) considered strengthening the drainage canal floodwalls but decided to postpone this effort due to cost and time constraints. Instead, the Corps decided to install three interim closure structures (gates) at the points where the canals meet the lake. These gates would be closed during major storm events to prevent storm surge from entering the canals and potentially breaching the canal floodwalls and flooding the city. Due to space constraints along the canals and the limited amount of time it had before the start of the 2006 hurricane season, the Corps decided to procure 34 large-capacity hydraulic pumping systems1 to provide the most pumping capacity possible by June 1, 2006. The Corps acknowledged that its decision to install the gates and provide pumping capacity that was less than what was needed to keep the city dry could result in some flooding by rainfall but believed that the risk from a hurricane-induced storm surge was far greater than the risk of flooding from heavy rainfall. During the process of acquiring, testing, and installing the pumping systems for the drainage canals, many concerns were raised by the media about potential problems with the operation of these pumping systems, and GAO was asked to examine the (1) specifications and requirements of the contract and the basis for selecting the supplier of the pumping systems; (2) concerns identified during factory testing and the Corps' rationale to install the pumping systems in light of the factory test failures; (3) actions the Corps has taken to address the known problems with the pumping systems; and (4) pumping capacity that existed on June 1, 2006, the capacity that currently exists, and the capacity that is planned for the 2007 hurricane season.

The Corps' decisions to acquire the 34 hydraulic pumping systems were focused on satisfying its commitment to have pumping capacity on the drainage canals in place by June 1, 2006--the start of the 2006 hurricane season. In order to increase the likelihood that pumping capacity would be in place when needed, the Corps utilized several tools to expedite and streamline the acquisition process. The Corps appears to have had a valid reason for each of the iterative decisions it made at each stage of the procurement process. Factory testing of the pumps occurred from March through May 2006, and revealed several problems with specific components of the pumping systems. As a result of the concerns identified during factory testing, the Corps had no assurance that the pumping systems would operate to capacity when needed. Nevertheless, the pumping systems were installed as planned because the Corps believed that it was better to have some pumping capacity along the drainage canals during the 2006 hurricane season rather than none. Since June 1, 2006, the Corps has continued to take steps to correct known performance problems with the pumping systems, including uninstalling them to make some repairs. On June 1, 2006, the Corps had installed 11 pumping systems, and by July 2006, it had installed 34, although it is uncertain how much of the theoretical capacity of these pumping systems would have worked and for how long. By June 1, 2007, the Corps plans to complete the reinstallation of all 40 pumping systems that have been repaired and each has been tested for between 45 minutes to 2 hours, thus providing greater assurance that they will perform as designed during the upcoming 2007 hurricane season. However, the total planned pumping capacity will still not meet the Sewerage and Water Board's drainage needs to keep the city from flooding during a hurricane when the canal gates are closed.

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