Harry Shearer interviews Maria Garzino on Hurricane Isaac e-mail FOIAs. Uh oh.
August 2012. New Orleans. Hurricane Isaac. First real test of the $14 billion rebuilt flood protection system since Katrina. You have reporters from the New York Times and the Times-Picayune embedded in your control center, and you're getting reports of failures in your pumps, your gates, your water level gauges, and your electrical system. Water's rising and the public is watching. What do you do?
Answer: Turn the data off and tell the reporters everything's working fine.
You are the Army Corps of Engineers.
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This week on Le Show, Harry Shearer interviewed Army Corps of Engineers whistleblower Maria Garzino about New Orleans blogger Matt McBride's recent FOIA catches.
Listen to the podcast here.
Harry Shearer interviews Maria Garzino
Le Show, August 11, 2013
HARRY SHEARER: From London, this is Le Show, and I’m joined today by probably my favorite whistleblower. You may remember her from this broadcast or from the documentary film about the 2005 New Orleans flood, The Big Uneasy. She was and is an employee of the United States Army Corps of Engineers but has whistleblower protection, and she is in Los Angeles today, Maria Garzino. Maria, welcome back.
MARIA GARZINO: Hello, Harry. Very glad to be here.
HARRY SHEARER: Great to have you here. The occasion for this conversation, ladies and gentlemen, is last year there was a hurricane that passed to the west of New Orleans, Hurricane Isaac, but it brought some rainfall and some issues to New Orleans and it was advertised after the fact as the first real test of the Hurricane Risk Reduction System, the $14 billion system that the United States Army Corps of Engineers built after the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans in 2005 to supposedly protect the city, and, as I say, it was advertised as the first example of the system working. Now some 11 months, or 10, 11 months later, a blogger in New Orleans by the name of Matt McBride had issued Freedom of Information Act requests to the Army Corps for their internal e-mails during the period of Hurricane Isaac, and they have become public in the last few weeks, and that’s what I’ve asked Maria to discuss here today. She did not participate in the FOIA action but she is an expert on much of this system. She supervised the testing and installation of the hydraulic pumps at the heart of the system in New Orleans, and so I’ve asked for her guidance as we talk about some of the points raised by these newly published e-mails.
First, and this had become sort of – yeah, I hesitate to use the pun, but it had leaked out publicly, before these e-mails, problems with the water level gauges in the three canals that connect New Orleans to Lake Pontchartrain. These are the canals into which rainwater is pumped by the city by very efficient pumps and that the water normally then goes into the lake, and that’s how the city gets, to use a Corps of Engineers word, dewatered. But there are problems with these canals. The floodwalls that the Corps built some decades ago have problems which were revealed in 2005. They’ve never been fixed, and so the Corps has mandated a new lower safe water level for these canals and the water level gauges are necessary for the Corps to know how high the water is. We learned during Isaac there’s a problem with those gauges. Do you have some insight into why that is, how that could be?
MARIA GARZINO: Yes, actually. The FOIA documents with the internal e-mails were very clear. They give a very good picture. In addition to what we had learned, originally what caught my attention was, what was reported forward by the Corps at the time was, everything was fine, all the gauges worked. I think there was even an article printed the day of the storm by the New York Times that said that they were reporting water levels and referring to the gauges as providing those water levels, but we later learned that in fact there was massive SCADA data failures in the gauges, the majority of which were malfunctioning, not working properly.
HARRY SHEARER: SCADA is –
MARIA GARZINO: It’s basically a computerized system to collect all the data and transmit data back and forth.
HARRY SHEARER: And the New Orleans website The Lens reported earlier this year I believe that the problem with the gauges had to do with the way they were installed by the Corps, is that correct?None of this data was reported forward to the emergency op center and reported forward to the embedded journalists also or reported out to the public. They were instead told everything’s working fine.
MARIA GARZINO: Yes. It was. It had a great deal to do with the installation methods as well as the engineering of what they actually bought. I think there were issues with wind shear and other things too. I think at the time The Lens offered that six of the eight gauges at 17th Street Canal were malfunctioning at the time during the storm, and they even reported, which was a little disturbing, that one of the gauges registered over 8 feet before it stopped working. The safe water level at 17th Street is 6½ feet. At the time we were told that water levels in 17th Street Outfall Canal by the Corps had reached 6, at the most 6½ feet. And what we later learned with these internal e-mails was, because there was this massive failure of the gauges, their reporting the data, their malfunctioning, what the Corps had actually done is, and what you do in that instance, you send people out into the storm to get a visual to kind of eyeball what the water level is in the canal, and that’s what they were doing. Internal e-mails were showing that they were getting I believe half-hour interval readings from people going out and eyeballing it and reporting back. None of this data was reported forward to the emergency op center and reported forward to the embedded journalists also or reported out to the public. They were instead told everything’s working fine.
HARRY SHEARER: So those are the gauges. Now let’s get to what’s really at the heart of this story, which is the pumps. These pumps, which you know intimately –
MARIA GARZINO: Yes.
HARRY SHEARER: – are there to pump the water in the canals into the lake when gates are closed to prevent storm surge from the lake from coming backward into the canals and thereby flooding the city. And there are two sets of pumps – the hydraulic pumps, which I think you proved definitively, and you were vetted by outside engineering consultants hired by the Office of Special Counsel to examine your work, that the hydraulic pumps were incapable of working in hurricane conditions, but we were told at the time that your reports first became public that, “Well, there are these other pumps, direct-drive pumps, and they work perfectly, so you don’t have to worry about the hydraulic pumps.” Now I think the e-mails that have been made public reveal there were problems with the direct-drive pumps as well?To simplify it, the moment you turn the hydraulic pumps on, they essentially start destroying themselves.
MARIA GARZINO: Correct, Harry. There were. And that was very surprising at the time. As you know, the reason for those direct-drives also has to do with the fact that during the process of testing and installing the hydraulic pumps, my trying to bring forward the issues of deep embedded systemic, system deficiencies and later proving them to be – essentially, to simplify it, the moment you turn the hydraulic pumps on, they essentially start destroying themselves. There’s no way to keep them going, from an engineering standpoint, that the systems, the components of the systems, you can’t rely on them. They will start destroying themselves. What I found through the long process of the investigatory process and onward is the Corps also came to understand that these are not the type of pumps that they wanted to continue putting in. They had originally put in 34, or they had put in 32 pumps and they bought an additional few pumps to install at London Avenue and at 17th Street, but then they changed dramatically after my coming forward with the defective nature. They decided to go with direct-drive pumps instead to augment the pumps that they installed at 17th Street; I believe they put in 11 direct-drive pumps there. They also put in eight direct-drive pumps at London Avenue Canal. So those pumps were, once the Corps came forward and said, "We have, with these additional direct-drive pumps that are inherently supposed to be more, uh – "
HARRY SHEARER: Robust?
MARIA GARZINO: Less prone to – yes. Much more robust. Less prone to, to – well, they’re tried and true. They’re very – that’s what should have probably gone in in the beginning. But, that aside, essentially once small storms started showing up, the Army Corps started – this came out during the investigatory process – “See, we made it through the storm and we turned on hydraulic pumps,” and I was trying to explain that through FOIA data of my own, that’s not the case. They were misstating these. They were actually running direct-drive pumps while they were purporting to be running, “Here, look at the hydraulics run.” And the problem with that is you’d say, “Look at the discharge pipe. Those are connected to direct-drive pumps. Duh.” (laughs) But there were people, media that showed up with TV cameras running this that had no clue. So, you know, people – essentially I was feeling safe in the fact that the Corps was very comfortable with the operational abilities of their direct-drive pumps.
What was disturbing to me was during this storm, two things happened. They actually lost direct-drive pumps at 17th Street which never got reported forward. I believe the articles that came from the embedded journalists said, “All the pumps worked great!” In truth, at any one time, well, three of the hydraulic pumps at Orleans were completely nonoperational, three of the ten. They had, for all purposes, just 70% of any pumping capacity, even if they used it, and you have to remember this was a very small storm so there was very little use for pumping. But during this process and those internal e-mails, something very interesting came out. They actually, a couple days before, I believe, I’m not sure, they had gone to the outside contractor for the programming of these direct-drive pumps and asked them to basically, they wanted to override the safety shutdowns on two of the direct-drive pumps. One was experiencing, I believe, low gearbox oil pressure, and one was experiencing excessive vibration. So instead of having the pumps come up and experiencing these things and the automatic shutdown shut the pumps off, they wanted to override this so that the pumps would run until I guess their destruction if you don’t shut them off manually.
HARRY SHEARER: Run until they fry.You have to remember that you have to keep the safe water level down in the canals, no matter what. If you exceed it, which they apparently did and did not report forward, you take the risk of the levees once again breaching and flooding the city.
MARIA GARZINO: Yes. They’re in a destructive mode, which is why you have that emergency shutdown capability built into it in a computerized form, the SCADA data – everything senses that and then shuts these things down. Essentially what you’re doing, as I said, is you’re hardwiring that pump to run no matter what. And you’re relying on an outside individual to be watching it very carefully. Well, there’s really no way to have a human being have the same efficiency and competence that a computer has in sensing these things, and you’re dealing with a multimillion-dollar pump, and in addition to that the only reason to really take that kind of a risk is if you absolutely need that pumping capability, I would read into that. And in addition, if you’re looking at running that pump until it dies, you’re looking at getting whatever little bit more pumping capacity you can get out of it if you absolutely need it. You have to remember that you have to keep the safe water level down in the canals, no matter what. If you exceed it, which they apparently did and did not report forward, you take the risk of the levees once again breaching and flooding the city. So it’s a rather critical issue that never – this was never brought forward.
HARRY SHEARER: And that was a risk that the Corps in fact did take for at least, what, two or three hours on the day of Hurricane Isaac, is that correct?This was a very small storm. There wasn’t much need for pumping. From what I can see from the internal e-mails, I believe at one point they had as many as four hydraulic pumps out and three direct-drives. We don’t have all the internal documents, so we really don’t know. What we’re finding out is, none of this information was ever brought forward.
MARIA GARZINO: Yes. And there really wasn’t much need. This was a very small storm. (laughs) There wasn’t much need for pumping. In addition to this, they actually had a number of direct-drives go out. This was – I had never – I had thought that they were extremely reliable, because they’re going to need to be very reliable; you can’t count on these hydraulic pumps in the event of a major storm. But it turns out, from what I can see from the internal e-mails, they also had, I believe at one point they had as many as, I want to say four hydraulic pumps out and three direct-drives, and I think at the final reporting they managed to get – I really don’t know. We don’t have all the internal documents, so we really don’t know exactly what happened out there. We only have a small amount of information through these small amount of FOIA documents to tell us. What we’re finding out is, none of this information was ever brought forward.
HARRY SHEARER: By the embedded reporters at the time.
MARIA GARZINO: Well, you have to understand, the embedded reporters are sitting right there. They’re in the emergency op center. They’re looking right at the screen that says “issues,” as they wrote in their stories. That’s being reported forward to the commander and the commander is telling them, “There are no issues.”
HARRY SHEARER: Do we have any idea, any clue from the e-mails that have been published so far, what the problem with the direct-drive pumps is?
MARIA GARZINO: No. I really don’t have any clear understanding of what exactly is preventing these pumps from operating seamlessly through a hurricane event.
HARRY SHEARER: The Corps is in the process of bidding out, I think they’ve finally bid out the contract for the replacement of this whole system, the so-called temporary system which has been in place since 2006, with a new system that will not, by the Corps’ own schedule, be installed, completed until 2017. So New Orleans will have been in this mode for 11 years. What kind of pump – do you know what kind of pumps are supposed to be in the new permanent system?
MARIA GARZINO: I don’t exactly have a clear idea exactly what’s going to be put out there. My understanding is these are going to be direct-drive too, which are inherently more reliable than most any other design.
HARRY SHEARER: Given the state of the gauges and given the state of the pumps during what you have described as a rather small hurricane, what should these e-mails tell us about the state of the system that’s supposed to be protecting New Orleans right now?It’s a very poorly designed system, and from that flows a myriad of possibilities. Anything and everything is pretty much possible.
MARIA GARZINO: I think that the biggest thing that these e-mails tell us has to do with the lack of transparency and accountability that’s coming forward from Corps leaders. That to me is what really rang out. I think that what comes across in a very powerful way, there were a tremendous amount of failures going on at the time of the storm, in addition to the gauges, in addition to the pumps. There were equally serious issues with electrical system failures that could cause something quite catastrophic to happen that never got reported forward. There were a number of other things happening that you can read in these e-mails that were rather disturbing, and what I was most disturbed about went to the heart of the lack of transparency that was inherent in the reporting forward. The little bit that we do know about the condition of that system is not good. I suspect what really is going on with this system is far worse than what we really do know. That’s inherent with the very poorly designed engineering system, which that is. It’s a very poorly designed system, and from that, you know, flows a myriad of possibilities. Anything and everything is pretty much possible. We’re not getting the kind of responses that we should be getting: “We had this problem, we’re looking into it, this is what we’re going to do to fix it.” This is not what’s happening. Instead what’s happening is, “We don’t have a problem.” And that to me is more disturbing.
HARRY SHEARER: Yeah. You refer to other problems – I think we were talking before we began taping about problems with some of the gates themselves. These are the gates that as a hurricane approaches would be closing to prevent a hurricane storm surge from spilling from the lake into the canals that would end up flooding the city. What happened with those gates? They’re supposed to be automatic, right?They waived mandatory protocol. And again they reported forward, “Everything’s fine with the gates.” And only through these e-mails do we see, no, everything was not fine. And you waived mandatory safety protocol, and you didn’t tell anybody.
MARIA GARZINO: Well, they are. And essentially the reason they’re automatic is, for a number of reasons, but it gives you a lot of, it gives you the option of dropping the gates when you need them. And it could be that you don’t need to close – most times you don’t need to close those gates during a small storm. And I suspect, even during most of the storms that we’ve seen, I don’t think the gates really needed to have been closed. In this case, when – however, if those automatic hoist systems don’t work, then you have to close those gates, and you have to induce pumping, because you can’t be taking the chance that if you need to close the gates during a storm you really can’t do it. You can’t go out and get a crane and personnel to stand there in the middle of a storm. So, two things happened. One was, at London Avenue Outfall Canal there was a failure of, when they went to close the gates, they couldn’t secure them. Four of the eleven gates were partially secured. One of the segments – in addition, one of the segments was completely fully unsecured. And this was not, again, reported forward. They actually reported forward, “Everything secured perfect.” And when you can’t secure gates properly, there’s protocol built into operating procedures. You’re supposed to go out and drop very large sandbags with a crane in front of those unsecured gates. That’s to mitigate what possibly might happen. It’s not the best thing you can – you’d rather have it secured. But you need to mitigate what might happen during a storm with those unsecured gates. The internal e-mails show that there was a discussion back and forth and someone said essentially, “I think we’re fine. We don’t need to drop bags, do we?” And someone said, “No. We’re going to waive that requirement.” They waived mandatory protocol. And again they reported forward, “Everything’s fine with the gates.” And only through these e-mails do we see, no, everything was not fine. And you waived mandatory safety protocol, and you didn’t tell anybody. And, of course, no harm, no foul.
HARRY SHEARER: This time.
MARIA GARZINO: “If it happens, who knows – yeah, no harm, no foul. And it’s a tiny storm, what’s going to happen?” The problem with that is, that’s transparency. Because you wonder, well why would someone do that? Well I think the e-mails also show us why someone would do that. But that’s another– But what we see is, it’s very hard to hide the fact of a big crane out there with big, big bags of sand. “What are you doing?” “Oh, I’m dropping bags in front of the gates because they’re unsecured.” And then you have to take them out later on (laughs) when you want to open it. It’s a very messy process that the whole world gets to see. So, you waive that requirement, I think, in my mind, because you don’t want anyone to know that you didn’t secure those gates.
HARRY SHEARER: Well that ties into one of the e-mails in this chain from I believe the director of engineering in New Orleans, Walter Baumy, who was talking about the fact that the public is going to be wanting to look at the water level gauges, going back to them.
MARIA GARZINO: Right.
HARRY SHEARER: Were connected to a website so that the public could see what the water level gauges were reporting.
MARIA GARZINO: Yes.
MARIA GARZINO: And the water level gauges were reporting goofy figures. I think the Times-Picayune in fact described the performance of the gauges in a heartwarmingly affectionate way as “goofy” at the time, and he said in one of these e-mails, “The public’s going to want to know about these incorrect readings, so let’s just shut it down.”
MARIA GARZINO: I think, I have his quote, and it was, “If outfall gauges are unreliable, they should be turned off, in my opinion.” He goes on to say, “We’ll need to defend the unreliability as public will want access. Please provide your assessment.” And here’s the head person in engineering writing forward what he believes. He’s basically saying the gauges are unreliable and he thinks they should be turned off, and he goes on to say that if the public gets access to the malfunctioning gauge readings, the Corps will then have to defend that unreliability. And when I looked at this, just bells went off for me, and I looked at this and I said, “You know, this position that he takes serves actually no engineering purpose.”If they had any inkling towards transparency and truthfulness, they would have communicated forward the malfunctioning gauges and the alternative measures that they were having to engage in to try and verify actual outfall canal water levels during the storm event, going out into the storm and eyeballing it and sending back those readings. They didn’t do this. They did the opposite, in fact. They reported forward no issues with the gauges, and when they reported to those people embedded in the emergency op center, they reported canal levels derived from what they presented as actual working gauges.
You have to remember the context that this was communicated in, the context when this e-mail was sent. It was during the storm, and it was during the time of their reporting back and forth. If they had any inkling towards transparency and truthfulness, they would have communicated forward the malfunctioning gauges and the alternative measures that they were having to engage in to try and verify actual outfall canal water levels during the storm event, going out into the storm and eyeballing it and sending back those readings. They didn’t do this. They did the opposite, in fact. They reported forward no issues with the gauges, and they gave reported canal – and when they reported to those people embedded in the emergency op center, they reported canal levels derived from what they presented as actual working gauges. And when you look at that e-mail, you know, when you look at the whole picture? That e-mail, it constitutes an unacceptable position to take and to communicate forward. And it’s really for nothing short of simply concealing apparent incompetence and decidedly embarrassing information. It serves, it has no other purpose.
HARRY SHEARER: You mentioned other problems aside from the gates, the pumps, the gauges. There were electrical system problems you mentioned. Do we know any more in detail about what those were or how those impacted the system?
MARIA GARZINO: Actually, yeah. To go back to London Outfall Canal with the electrical system failure, what happened there was also of significance in that they lost, they had an electrical system failure for the refueling system, and they lost that refueling system for half of the pumps there, leaving that outfall canal with four to five hours, from what I could tell from the internal e-mail, they guesstimated about four to five hours of run time left in them. So.
HARRY SHEARER: And this was during –
MARIA GARZINO: That’s a very critical issue too.
HARRY SHEARER: And this was during the storm?
MARIA GARZINO: Yes. This was during the storm.
HARRY SHEARER: And do we know anything from the e-mails about what initiated the electrical system problem or what steps they were taking to ameliorate it?
MARIA GARZINO: I believe, and this is – I don’t have, I don’t have any of those e-mails in front of me, but I believe some of them were rather trivial, in someone reported forward I think, I’d have to go back and read it again, a gecko or something was fried. I don’t remember (laughs) what that was.
HARRY SHEARER: Yeah, that rings a bell.
MARIA GARZINO: Something crawled in there and got itself fried. And caused an issue.
HARRY SHEARER: Would that be a design problem, allowing a gecko –
MARIA GARZINO: No, that’s (laughs) – get a better container.
HARRY SHEARER: Yeah.
MARIA GARZINO: A better enclosure.
HARRY SHEARER: Yeah. We’re told that there may be more e-mails to come. You’re inside the agency. Did this information, as it was filtering out over the last few weeks, come as a surprise to you?We live on Blackberries and iPhones, and there’s a plethora of information that should have been there that I didn’t see.
MARIA GARZINO: No. I’m actually surprised that they got what they got, probably, but I think when I was reading through some of the verbage of how he was getting these e-mails, it was very clear to me, knowing how you run projects and knowing how you send today – In today’s, as with every profession, we live on Blackberries and iPhones, and there’s a plethora of information that’s there that should have been there that I didn’t see, and I didn’t like that. FOIAs should be, when you ask for something, you get it. I suspect not all of it was there to get. I don’t know. There should have been a whole lot more there. He brought up the fact that attachments were not provided that were asked for. I think that’s common. I don’t know why.If you don’t turn it on, and if you don’t record it, you don’t have to report anything. And that to me shows a mindset. It shows an embedded culture. Instead of acknowledging what the problems are, it’s hiding them and burying them and confusing them.
I think the – I’m not surprised by that, largely because of my experience going through the same FOIA process bringing my issues forward. I would hope that there would be more transparency, but that would come from an organization that’s willing to put forward, again, “Here’s the problem, here’s what we see, here’s what we’re going to do with it and how we’re going to fix it,” and I’m not exactly – that has not been my experience with this particular project in particular, or district, and what I’ve seen instead has been, “There is no problem.” And something else that I see repeated that’s disturbing to me is, as the e-mail from Mr. Baumy highlighted, if you don’t turn it on, you don’t have to report the data. You know, if you don’t turn it on, and if you don’t record it, or if you don’t – you don’t have to report anything. And that to me is not – it shows a mindset. It shows an embedded culture. Instead of acknowledging what the problems are, it’s hiding them and burying them and confusing them and – well.
HARRY SHEARER: Yeah. Are you happy not to be in New Orleans supervising the new pumping system?
MARIA GARZINO: Well, yes and no. Absolutely I am. I don’t think that it would serve any purpose. I was very naïve at the time thinking that there would be responsiveness. I’ve since learned that that’s not a possibility, and I’m glad to not be there on one level, but at the same time I very much would want to be there, because I think questions need to be asked, issues need to be pointed out, there needs to be more accountability, more transparency, and I would hope – there’s no place I think for that. So, no. I don’t think I would belong there.
HARRY SHEARER: Maria, thank you for shedding some light on the e-mails. It’s always good to talk to you, and continued good luck.
MARIA GARZINO: Thank you, Harry.
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HARRY SHEARER: Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s going to conclude this week’s edition of Le Show. The program returns next week at this same time over these same stations over NPR Worldwide throughout Europe, the USEN 440 cable system in Japan, around the world through the facilities of the American Forces Network, up and down the East Coast of North America via the shortwave giant WBCQ The Planet 7.490 MHz shortwave, on the Mighty 104 in Berlin, on your smartphone through stitcher.com, and available as a free podcast from Sideshow Network, iTunes, and around the world via the internet at two different locations, harryshearer.com and KCSN.org. And it would be just like having your own secret backdoor if you'd agree to join with me then. Would you? All righty. Thank you very much, uh huh.
A tip of the Le Show chapeau to the San Diego, Pittsburgh, Chicago in exile, and Hawaii desks. Thanks as always to Pam Halstead. Thanks today to Brian Roth at Buzzy's in Los Angeles and Andrew Boyce at 5A Studio here in London for engineering help with today’s broadcast.
The e-mail address for this program and the playlist for the music heard hereon as well as a fabulous store, all at your fingertips, or your toetips if you go that way, at harryshearer.com. And me? I'm @theharryshearer on Twitter.
Le Show comes to you from Century of Progress Productions and originates through the facilities of the Change is Hard Radio Network. So long from London.
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photo source: TheBigUneasy.com
Last week's interview with John Barry on the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East's lawsuit against Big Oil for wetlands loss is here.