Ready for Next Time
While the East Bank Wastewater Treatment Plant in New Orleans bears little evidence of the damage left behind by Hurricane Katrina, long-term planning and recovery to increase the facility’s functionality and dependability continues to this day.
By Steve Kruger and Bill Naughton, PG, M.SAME
In August 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approached the Gulf Coast, operators at the East Bank Wastewater Treatment Plant in New Orleans spent several days implementing a hurricane preparedness program. The advance work of plant operators was critical to the quick recovery of operations. Even then, the full magnitude of Katrina could not have been predicted, as in the immediate aftermath, with Hurricane Katrina having devastated the region, the East Bank Plant was left under 20-ft of water. U.S. Coast Guard helicopters had to airlift on-site staff to safety.
While near-term efforts to return the plan to operational function were successful, with treatment operations restored in just three months, long-term planning and recovery continues to this day to ensure the facility’s future resilience.
KEEPING THE FACILITY OPERATIONAL
From the outset of Katrina, there was one goal for Veolia North America, which oversaw operation of the East Bank Wastewater Treatment Plant: keep the 122-mgd facility operating for as long as possible in order to provide essential services to the public and environmental protection for the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast region, while securing the assets of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board.
In advance of the storm, employees prepared the plant by protecting and moving equipment, ensuring operational supplies were on hand, and seeing to the safety of staff. Emergency generators, other critical equipment, and extra fuel was staged both at the plant site and outside the anticipated area of the storm to ensure redundant and adequate resources were available in the event of major damage or power outages. Most employees were evacuated shortly before landfall, leaving an emergency team of four to ride out the storm in a fourth-floor control room.
The plant sustained serious damage and was submerged under 20-ft of water in the aftermath of the storm.
The first order of business was to rescue treatment plant operators who were stranded and to verify that those employees in impacted areas were safe. This became particularly challenging during Katrina. Communications systems were down or overloaded for weeks after the storm. Even communications via satellite phones with plant teams proved to be difficult, due to network phone issues.
After accounting for plant employees, attention shifted to ensuring the safety of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board’s valuable assets while also safeguarding the environment. Veolia assembled a nationwide task force of subject matter experts and technical staff to support the efforts of the crew on the ground, including human resources, engineering, construction, and environmental health and safety staff.
Team members quickly assessed the condition of the facilities, workforce and equipment to help prioritize recovery efforts. This additional support also helped procure equipment such as pumps, generators, hoses and piping necessary for cleanup and dewatering the site.
REPAIR AND REHABILITATION
Within a month, the East Bank facility was completely dewatered. The focus then became removal of mud and debris, and cleaning and disinfection of plant. Two weeks later, 30-mgd of wastewater was pumping through the plant each day. Attention then turned to establishing specific priorities and a detailed plan of action to meet a strict goal for recovery. Teams worked around the clock, repairing essential treatment equipment and plant processes to establish primary treatment, including the removal of solid debris, sand and grit and then the settling of suspended and dissolved wastewater solids. Wastewater disinfection and pumping processes were restored for discharge to the Mississippi River. After this, the focus turned to essential equipment and plant processes associated with secondary (biological) treatment—including rehabilitation of the oxygen reactor, pure oxygen system, re-establishment of the microbial population, final clarifier repair, and rehabilitation of the sludge disposal system.
Strong communication and partnering between industry and local and federal government stakeholders was crucial to quickly bring the plant back online and to secure funding for critical restoration and resiliency upgrade projects.
RECOVERY AND RESILIENCY
Although some predicted it might take one year or more to bring the treatment plant back on line, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the City of New Orleans and Veolia a 60-day deadline to restore both primary and secondary wastewater treatment. A dedicated commitment enabled both primary and secondary wastewater treatment to be restored at the East Bank plant by November 2005.
The deadline was met and an analysis of best practices was conducted to aid in preparation and recovery for future crises. Since Hurricane Katrina, a number infrastructure and process improvements have been implemented to prevent destructive flooding and improve mobilization response. An 18-ft high wall was built around the facility that will hold back flood waters and storm surges. A new administration building was constructed on stilts to ensure staff and operations controls equipment are safe during storms and flooding. The facility now has an emergency power building that incorporates a back-up energy supply for the plant, including an additional control center operation. Waterproof doors are in place at the main power building.
As part of the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2015—and in support of continuous efforts to be more prepared in a future emergency—the City of New Orleans announced a first-ever comprehensive resiliency strategy that calls for a personal emergency account program, development of a comprehensive stormwater management program, and creation of a resiliency center.
The strategy, a joint effort between New Orleans and 100 Resilient Cities (which is pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation) proposes 41 actions to build city-wide resilience and comes with more than $1 million in commitments for implementation from the public and private sectors, as well as additional commitments from local and national philanthropic organizations. As a partner to New Orleans and the Rockefeller Foundation, Veolia contributed to the resiliency strategy and roadmap by helping the city implement a resilient infrastructure recovery and risk transfer initiative. The roadmap outlines a number of specific actions including activating private-market assets to improve or repair critical systems after a disruptive event.
INTO THE FUTURE
While today, the East Bank Wastewater Treatment Plant bears few signs of the damage left behind by Katrina, long-term planning and recovery remains ongoing to increase preparedness and resilience in the event of future disaster events.
Since Katrina, the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board has allocated $739 million for wastewater system recovery projects, representing the most aggressive and important rebuilding effort in the utility’s 110-year history; this total includes $244 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the continued rehabilitation of the plant and repair and replacement of pumping stations. The lessons of a decade ago have been heard.