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Now, New Orleans’ Water Problem Is Underground

Times Staff Writer

Underground cracks and leaks in the city’s water system due to Hurricane Katrina cause the loss of 80 million to 100 million gallons of potable water a day, further challenging a Fire Department that has battled a spate of fires lately with depleted ranks and resources.

In recent weeks, low water pressure has forced businesses and offices, including City Hall, to close early or remain shuttered for most of the day. Residents in some areas say the water pressure is not strong enough for a shower.

“It’s very serious in that we’re producing a vast amount of water that we know is being wasted to maintain the pressure in the line,” said Robert Jackson, a spokesman for the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board. The system pumps about 150 million gallons a day, but only about 50 million gallons are being used. The cost of the wasted drinking water amounts to around $200,000 a day, Jackson said.

Many pipes were damaged when Katrina pulled up trees whose roots were wrapped around the pipes, causing extensive underground seepage. Contractors hired by the city to clear debris also knocked over fire hydrants, ran over sewer lines and crushed water meters, Jackson said.

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The leaks threaten to sink roads, rupture sewage pipes straining under the weight of soaked soil and further jeopardize the stability of some already shaky structures.

On June 7, low water pressure forced City Hall and the New Orleans Civil Court Building to close early. The courts remained closed for the rest of the week. Jackson explained that diminished water pressure reduced service in restrooms, drained water fountains and hindered water-powered air-conditioning systems.

“ ‘You never miss the water until the well runs dry’ is really a literal phrase here,” said Jackson, noting that 19,000 complaints about leaks had been logged by his department since Katrina, of which 17,000 had been dealt with.

He said contractors had been hired to help solve the leakage problem and would be installing devices to monitor underground seepage throughout the coming weeks.

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The water pressure also worries residents, who are already enduring unseasonable heat, a drought and stifling humidity. And hurricane season just started June 1.

At a recent meeting of the Bywater Neighborhood Assn., Vice President Patricia Meyer told visiting City Council members that some residents could not take showers because of low water pressure in their homes.

Meyer also noted concerns that the mounds of storm debris and trash that still littered her neighborhood -- and many others, almost 10 months after Katrina -- were a fire threat. “Fires are our biggest enemy,” Meyer said.

The last 10 days have seen more than two dozen serious blazes across New Orleans, Fire Department records indicate.

Fire District Chief Norman Woodridge said most of the fires were caused by faulty electrical wiring, lightning strikes, people smoking near debris, or squatters cooking or living by candlelight in garbage-strewn abandoned houses.

He acknowledged that because of low water pressure, firefighters could not solely depend on fire hydrants.

“We have to supplement ourselves with water tankers,” Woodridge said.

The tankers carry between 1,000 and 2,000 gallons of water, which is dumped into a sort of portable tub at the site of the fire, Woodridge said, and is then pumped through firetrucks’ hoses.

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Two helicopters, on loan through the end of the month from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are also in frequent use, Woodridge said. Fire personnel started to gauge pressure at hydrants to help make the department’s case for keeping the helicopters.

Woodridge said that three fire pumps were destroyed by Katrina floodwaters and that fleet vehicles and other machinery might eventually be damaged by the saltwater.

Since Katrina, the number of firefighters has dropped from 741 to 689, Woodridge said. Some retired, others moved, and many of the younger firefighters were hired by fire departments in other cities and states. (The department had no deserters during the storm, as the Police Department did.)

“They are much in demand right now,” Woodridge said, and chuckled: “They have urban water rescue experience.”

Almost 80% of firefighters lost their homes to Katrina, city statistics suggest. Many now live in trailers, and others commute from as far as Atlanta, Houston and Dallas, where their families have settled, Woodridge said.


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