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December 13, 2005 > County water district helps out Katrina victims

County water district helps out Katrina victims

by Vidya Pradhan

The effects of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans are well known and well documented. What is perhaps less known is that while the levee breaches flooded the city, storm and wave surges from Lake Pontchartrain also wreaked havoc on neighboring towns.

A coalition of water agencies formed by the Alameda County Water District (ACWD), the Contra Costa Water District (CCWD) and the Zone 7 Water Agency looked for a town where their services could make a difference. The board of the ACWD also approved $50,000 for assistance. They found that the city of Slidell, Louisiana had suffered over $10 million in damages from Hurricane Katrina. Houses were washed away and trees had snapped like matchsticks. Public utility services were badly battered, with downed power lines and broken water pipes.

The Bayou Liberty Water Association, which serves a suburb of the city of Slidell, lost service for over 4000 connections because of falling trees and moving structures. Lacking the monetary resources to repair the water system quickly and missing several of its utility crew due to storm and evacuations, the Association requested help from the Bay Area coalition of water agencies.

In late September and early October, two crews from the ACWD traveled to Slidell help out. With Hurricane Rita on their tail, the first of the crews reached Slidell on September 25. TCV spoke to Dave Ybarra, a crewmember on that team, and ACWD Operations Manager Karl Stinson.

The team members were well equipped, with tents and provisions, Dave reminisced, but nothing could have prepared them for the sight of the large-scale devastation. The areas damaged by the surge of water were completely flattened. Tsunami size waves went through the houses and washed them away. The storm's force had shifted other homes up to 200 feet from their foundations.

The water system in the town of Slidell was quite rudimentary compared to what the crews were used to. Pipes were constructed of plastic and laid out along the side of the roads; when roads were cleared, debris from the storm completely blocked access to the water pipes.

With the help of local water association employees, the crews isolated leaks and ruptures in 100 degree temperatures with 87 percent humidity. Workers cut trees and moved trunks uprooted by the storm in the stifling heat. Rudimentary septic systems of the city had been damaged, causing a stench compounded by rotting debris. Downed power lines made crew progress slow and cautious.

Lack of a valve system meant that crews were working with live pipes; water pressure sometimes made it very difficult for them to make repairs. Occasionally, suspicious locals would wave shotguns at the crews, concerned about who they were. Water department crews also had to repair the chlorination plant to make the water more potable. Crews bunked at the Emergency Operations Center, and worked 12-hour days, often functioning on just cases of water during the day.

By the time the two ACWD crews left Slidell after two and a half weeks, they had worked 920 hours and succeeded in restoring power to over 80 percent of the city. The remaining service connections were either under water or the buildings that served them were completely destroyed.

Work done by ACWD employees made a big difference to storm-ravaged Slidell, but also left a lasting impact on the eight team members. "It's an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life," said Ybarra. "The sight of families living in tents outside their houses, families that had lost everything, makes us all so thankful for what we have."

"I would go back there in a heartbeat," he added. "It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a difference. We knew it was going to be tough, but we were so glad we could help out somebody. It could have just as easily been us, and I know they would have helped us out just the same."

Could such a situation happen in California? Up to 50 percent of our water supply comes from the delta formed by the Sacramento and the San Joaquin rivers. The delta is supported by 1100 miles of earthen levees extremely vulnerable to earthquakes. In the event of a calamity, it would be very difficult to repair the levees and Northern California could well face an extended period of water shortage. Disaster preparation for such an event is a high priority at ACWD. A December board meeting will reveal more details regarding their plans.

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