A thankless job proved life-saving in the disaster that followed Hurricane Katrina. But did anybody notice? You will now.
By Greg Snapper
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans in late August 2005, standing water and a laundry list of pollutants brewed in the streets of the Big Easy. This toxic soup threatened hurricane relief crews and city residents with potential outbreaks of cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases, creating several reasons to simply abandon, rather than recover, “Lake Orleans.”
But domestic and international relief crews came to the city’s aid. Among international efforts, a German team of 89 flood-fighting specialists and five medical personnel were dispatched from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to Louisiana via seven U.S. military cargo planes: four C-17 Globemasters and three C-5 Galaxies. Hitching a ride with the crew were 15 high-performance pumps and 26 vehicles. Before Hurricane Rita struck the Gulf Coast in late September, this German Federal Agency for Technical Relief (THW) crew was the main source for pumping New Orleans dry. From City Hall to the Superdome and a swath of other downtown buildings, THW volunteers worked the pumps – knee deep at times in water that harbored hidden and potentially harmful bacteria.
Bacteria, more specifically “disease-bearing agents,” often entered conversation with Claus Boettcher, THW liaison officer, at the Chalmette slip in St. Bernard Parish. When Boettcher’s team concluded relief missions each day, they trudged back to the Chalmette slip where their interim home was docked. The MV Scotia Prince, one of four cruise ships contracted with FEMA for six-month housing stints since Sept. 10, 2005, housed the THW crew. Just before entering the 1,000-person-capacity cruise ship each evening, the crew underwent decontamination.
“The team removed their shoes, dropped their clothes and showered in the decon area, preventing any risks of contamination of the ship,” Boettcher said. The showers streamed filtered water from a portable on-site filtration system just a short distance from the MV Scotia Prince. It was a quick and short-lived part of the day but vital nonetheless to block potential disease from infiltrating crew quarters.
Few portable filtration systems operated in the weeks following Katrina, but a precast concrete water tank played an integral role for relief efforts. An American joint cooperative – Louisiana-based Alvin Fairburn & Associates, Gainey’s Concrete Products Inc., Gulf States Engineering Co. Inc. and Ohio-based Kinetico, THW personnel, Navy and other agencies – set up a contained and controlled water system for decontamination on the docks of New Orleans Harbor.
The ‘inner workings’
In 100-degree heat overlooking the Big Easy skyline, Andy Dressel with Gulf States Engineering Co. Inc. drove sweat from his forehead with the back of his right hand as his left gripped the water tank of the filtration system resting on the docks of the Chalmette slip. He retold the transformational trip of Mississippi River water flowing through the inner workings of the system. “From Mississippi River water, you get clean, potable water in only minutes,” Dressel says.
A submersible pump hugs the walls of the Chalmette slip where the Navy battleship USS Shreveport is docked opposite the MV Scotia Prince. The pump starts the process stream by forcing raw river water into a precast concrete holding tank 50 feet above the water’s surface on the dock where the tank and filter, the two main components of the system, rest. Through the pump’s hose, untreated water collects in the tank and solids settle out, but with a little help.
“We inject polymer into the system, which allows separation in the tank,” Dressel says. “Then, periodically, if operators end up with some sedimentation in the tank that needs to be pumped out, there’s a waste pump in the tank that pumps the solids back into the river.”
A booster pump runs the water, which is now separated from visible river water particles, through a series of filters smart enough to maintain themselves. “The filters run off of a programmable logic controller, an automated attribute that looks at pressure loss across the filter and initiates an automatic backwash cycle if needed,” Dressel says. “So when you load up the filter with solids to the degree that they need to be backwashed, the unit automatically backwashes and most solids go out the backside of the system and back into the river.” Filtered water is then disinfected as it leaves the portable filter plant by undergoing a chlorine injection.
A 275-gallon plastic bladder sits alongside the filter, serving as a holding tank for the filtered water. The bladder’s high capacity is required due to the 50-gallon-per-minute rate at which the system churns Mississippi River water into potable water. Among the main freshwater supply users tapping the bladder were THW and Navy personnel. Upon the Sept. 4 arrival of the USS Shreveport to the Chalmette slip, all water system operations were handed over to onboard Navy water plant operators. The Port Authority of New Orleans still held its one-year “ownership” of the system, on loan from the joint cooperative businesses.
“The Navy was running the system the entire time they were docked,” Dressel says, a period that lasted from Sept. 4 to Sept. 20, 2005, the day USS Shreveport departed ahead of Hurricane Rita. “I know the Navy captain was glad to have a source of water off-ship so that he didn’t run a chance of contaminating the ship itself. They were running it a couple times a day, filling a 3,000-gallon tank and using it for their wash water and distributing it for people there outside of the military.”
Reporters from a Tel Aviv network, along with other media, construction personnel, politicians and general visitors, were given all the water they needed while visiting the area, Dressel says. “The Navy was giving support through our water filtration system for people outside of the military as well. Everyone receiving water was very grateful,” he says.
“Not one of our people became sick,” Boettcher says in a report on the THW crew’s health while stationed in New Orleans. “We can attribute the health of our crew to the availability of water for decontamination. That and our crew’s professionalism led to no sickness.”
THW crew men and women have come to the rescue of other disasters worldwide, but no relief trips were as “incredible” as the one they faced in New Orleans, Boettcher says. “We have been to many places abroad like Iraq, Afghanistan and many countries in Africa. We have worked in the mine fields of Mozambique – very dangerous places,” Boettcher says. “But this is very different than what we’re used to. These St. Bernard Parish people have lost everything. This is incredible devastation, but the people are kind, thankful and help each other as much as possible.”
It was the presence of one precast concrete tank that made a difference in the devastation. It provided a rare service in the weeks following Katrina: water, and lots of it, for the women and men who brought recovery to the Big Easy.
Project: St. Bernard Parish (New Orleans) Point Source Water System
Owner: New Orleans Port Authority
Engineer: Gulf States Engineering Co. Inc., New Orleans; Alvin Fairburn & Associates Inc., Denham Springs, La.; Kinetico Inc., Newbury, Ohio
Precast Manufacturer: Gainey’s Concrete Products Inc., Holden, La.
Gainey’s Concrete Products Inc. is certified under the NPCA Plant Certification Program