NEW ORLEANS — A boil-water advisory issued Monday for the east bank of Orleans Parish will remain in effect until this afternoon, when Sewerage & Water Board officials receive the results of tests to determine the water’s safety.
Marcia St. Martin, executive director of the S&WB, on Monday said the warning was sent as a precautionary measure after a brief power outage of the utility’s archaic electricity system at its main plant hours earlier.
“This is very proactive,” St. Martin said. “Our thought is that the water’s fine. We feel that in 24 hours we’ll get very good results.”
She and other S&WB officials didn’t believe there was anything unsafe about the water since the pressure at the plant dipped to 20 psi but never below that during the three-minute power outage. The trigger point for immediate emergency action happens when the pressure drops to 15 psi or below.
The boil-water advisory does not affect Algiers since it gets its water supply from a separate plant.
Before east bank residents use water to cook or clean, state officials recommend boiling it for one full minute after it reaches a rolling boil.
The outage happened about 8:30 a.m. Monday. Workers who were doing preventative maintenance on two of the boilers that generate the power tried to switch the power flow to another set of boilers when the failure happened, St. Martin said.
The power was out for about three minutes, St. Martin said, during which time the pressure dropped. Within minutes it returned to its normal level of 68 psi, she said.
The S&WB was in contact with the state Department of Health and Hospitals by 9:30 a.m. and sent out the advisory about 1 p.m. after DHH began to communicate with customers in eastern New Orleans, Gentilly and the 9th Ward who reported having little or no water for a few moments.
A similar loss of power — though longer — happened at the plant Nov. 19, 2010.
Pressure dropped to less than 10 psi during the 10-minute outage sometime between 10:30 and 11 p.m., prompting a boil-water advisory. In that instance, it took about four hours for an S&WB spokesman to notify media outlets about the advisory, and the city’s electronic alert system did not send out email blasts or text messages until about 8 a.m.
Responding to questions Monday about a similarly long notification time, St. Martin defended the lag. She said that the momentary loss of power necessitated a quicker investigation into the water pressure at the plant.
“I’m not going to say it was a delay,” she said. “It was just part of the process, the time it took to gather information and to communicate that information to the public.”
She said there is a fine line between overreacting and underreacting.
“If this had been a 30-minute outage there would have been no question about the DHH’s consultation with us. This was a few minute outage, so there was extensive consultation as to what actions were going to be proper.”
Most of the city’s water supply is treated at the S&WB’s main plant on South Claiborne Avenue. The plant produces 25-cycle power, an archaic and uncommon frequency of electricity, to drive the motors that run about half the city’s drinking water system, namely giant pumps that suck raw water from the Mississippi River and smaller pumps that send purified water into the underground pipe network.
St. Martin said the power-generating system has not been at full capacity since 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit.
FEMA gave the S&WB $12 million in 2010 to begin hardening the power plant. Ryan Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said that the city, FEMA and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness are in the process of approving and obligating $141 million in hazard mitigation funds to complete the work.
In a letter to Jindal after the 2010 power failure, Landrieu asked the governor for $200 million in hazard mitigation funds to upgrade the Claiborne Avenue plant.
In the letter, Landrieu said that the plant failed four times in its nearly 100-year existence, noting that all of those failures happened after Katrina.