Getting the Gulf Coast Back Online

Examining the water/wastewater-related response, as well as the lessons learned, from Hurricane Katrina

WWD: How quickly will the citizens in the Gulf Coast be able to get drinking water?
Matthew Barker: The timetable for citizens to get their drinking water services back online is somewhat difficult to estimate, as it is based upon a number of parameters. In some cases, they are not operating because there is no electricity. In other cases, they are operating but there is boil water advisory because the analysis to-date with the water is still unsafe. It is still really too early to tell, as operators are still addressing the effects of hygiene and other health and safety-related issues on the ground
It should be noted that operational facilities might still be in need of repair or reconstruction. EPA’s Water program is preparing to assess all drinking water plants after Hurricane Rita passes through, so we should be able to better estimate at that time.

WWD:What affect have the floodwaters had on the water/wastewater pipe infrastructure?
Barker: In New Orleans, Katrina caused untold damage to the 1,600-miles of underground pipes, being snapped and cracked when trees were uprooted, houses washed away and fire hydrants toppled.
Full restoration of water and wastewater services will be delayed by the many breaks in the distribution and collection systems and by the need for upgrades and repairs in older systems. Many pipes that were undamaged were however heavily polluted by the floodwaters.

WWD: What is the status of the water and wastewater plants in the Gulf Coast area?
Barker: According to the EPA, some 1,223 drinking water systems in three states have been affected by Hurricane Katrina. The latest EPA estimates stated that 159 of 683 drinking water facilities in Louisiana are inoperable or out of contact; 48 of 1,368 systems in Mississippi are down; and all facilities are running in Alabama. The EPA also added that operational facilities could still require repair or reconstruction. The agency has issued boil-water notices to many of the systems.
Regarding wastewater facilities, the EPA estimated that 36 out of 122 publicly owned treatment works were offline in Louisiana; four out of 115 were offline in Mississippi; and one facility was still inoperable in Alabama.
New Orleans’ main drinking-water treatment and pumping station, built in 1900, was coaxed back to life, and is currently at more than two-thirds normal capacity, pumping out 100 million gallons a day of chlorine-treated water. On the main, with regards to this tap water, flushing is fine, but drinking and bathing are discouraged for now.

WWD:In terms of funding, how much money will be needed to rehabilitate or rebuild the water and wastewater infrastructures?
Barker: According to estimates released by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) on September 22nd, the cost to repair and replace public drinking water infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Katrina will surpass $2.25 billion.
The report estimates that $1.6 billion will be required for 47 water systems serving more than 10,000 persons, with an additional $650 million required in 885 smaller, primarily groundwater systems. The systems are all in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The AWWA report estimates costs to repair or replace assets such as treatment plants, storage pumping, and related control facilities impacted by storm surge, flooding and other factors. It also analyzes the impact of revenue shortfalls due to the inability to service debt, particularly in communities where customers have relocated and the system is inoperable.
The report does not include the cost of pipe flushing and disinfecting, interim operating needs and cleaning of contaminated source waters.

WWD:What type of technology may need to be incorporated in the Gulf Coast areas to provide safe drinking water?
Barker: Going forward, the immediate need for clean drinking water supplies could be met with mobile response systems. Such systems often fit on the back of an 18-wheeler and can be transported to disaster areas relatively quickly, often utilizing more technologically advanced systems such as membranes. While many plants will be touch or go as to whether they are rebuilt or totally replaced, these mobile systems could fill the gap to provide clean water in the meantime.
As new plants are built, it provides a perfect chance to ensure that plants are equipped with the latest treatment technologies and practices. FEMA and other federal funds are to be made available, and large-scale efforts will be in place to get everything running as soon as possible. Some of these plants were also pretty old—now’s the chance to equip them for the next 100 years.

WWD:Is there anything the water and wastewater industry can learn from this disaster?
Barker: Many meteorological experts have said that we are merely at the beginning of a 20-year cycle of natural disasters of the magnitude we saw with hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Unfortunately, this means that events such as this will only continue in coming years. Going forward, plants should probably have to be built to resist hurricane force winds, be located above flood plain areas and be easily run on a skeleton staff or remotely operated.

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