After years of delays, officials broke ground on the last major element of the Army Corps of Engineers’ post-Hurricane Katrina flood protection system Friday: A nearly $615 million set of permanent pump stations and closure systems on the London, Orleans and 17th Street canals.
The long-awaited stations will replace temporary pumps that were installed after Katrina, allowing rainfall to be pumped from the canals to Lake Pontchartrain while also blocking a storm surge that would force water back into the drainage system.
The project, now two years behind schedule due to a series of conflicts among the companies bidding to design and build it, has been long anticipated by the Corps and local officials. The entire protection system is intended to block surges from a so-called “100-year storm,” a hurricane that has a 1 percent chance of happening in a given year.
“I know many of us thought this day would never come,” said Col. Richard Hansen, commander of the Corps’ New Orleans District.
But while officials celebrated the beginning of construction, some also used the event to push for additional protection. U.S. Sen. David Vitter stressed the need for more storm protection work in Louisiana. These additional projects include a plan that would allow the station on the 17th Street Canal to pump to both the lake and the Mississippi River, an extensive storm protection system for the north shore that would include a surge barrier at the Rigolets and the Morganza to the Gulf project.
“We’re protecting against the last one and not the next one,” Vitter said.
Jefferson Parish President John Young said those additional projects are needed because “you can only build levees so high.”
In praising the start of the project, Vitter also harkened back to Katrina, offering a reminder that most of the catastrophic flooding came as a result of failures in the storm protection system.
“I don’t say this to dwell on the negative or to dwell on all the miseries folks have been through, but again to refocus us on the importance of today and all of our unified commitment that it never happens again,” Vitter said.
Construction of the permanent pumps by PCCP Constructors is expected to take about three and a half years, with the temporary pumps providing storm protection throughout that time. Those pumps are already pushing the boundaries of their seven-year expected lifespan, but Corps officials have said an aggressive maintenance schedule keepsthem up to the job.
The major source of delay has been disputes over the process used to award the contract, which originally went to a CBY Design Builders in 2011. PCCP and Bechtel Infrastructure Corp., who also bid on the project, successfully challenged that decision based on issues with the process used by the Corps.
After revising its bid process, the Corps awarded the contract to PCCP, prompting the other two companies to again challenge the procedure. That led to a third set of bids, which once again went to PCCP.
The original cost of the project was set at $675 million, but it repeatedly dropped during the extended bidding process.