JUST when you think the depth of government ineptitude in New Orleans after Katrina has been fully plumbed, a new outrage surfaces. But this time, when the Army Corps of Engineers bungled with faulty flood control pumps in the Big Easy, Mother Nature was kind.
Before the start of last year's hurricane season, the corps hastily installed defective drainage canal pumps. Fortunately for what's left of New Orleans, the 2006 hurricane season was mild and the new pumps were never pressed into action.
The corps insists the pumps would have worked last year and the city was never in danger. But that seems highly doubtful.
According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, one of the corps' own experts warned her superiors the pumps would fail in a storm.
Maria Garzino, who was charged with overseeing quality assurance of the pumps at the manufacturer's test site, said they would break down under normal use. The Army mechanical engineer's memo about 34 heavy-duty pumps was reportedly sent to the head of a task force assigned to rebuild the flood defenses after Katrina.
But Army engineers, rushing to make good on President's Bush's pledge of protecting New Orleans from another devastating hurricane, apparently figured even defective machinery was better than nothing. Some pumping capacity was better than none if the city was hit again.
And yet a couple of months before the next hurricane season is due to start the corps is still struggling to get the pumps to work. Incredibly, the pumps at three major drainage canals have to be pulled out for repairs on all sorts of problems, from excessive vibration and overheated motors to broken hoses and blown gaskets.
And the unreliable water pumps did not come cheap. Moving Water Industries won a $26.6 million contract to build the custom-designed equipment but it /ftrnow needs to be completely overhauled.
Interestingly, the owner of MWI, J. David Eller, was once a business partner of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. They ran a venture called Bush-El that marketed MWI pumps.
Mr. Eller is also a generous contributor to the Republican Party and his politically connected company has raised eyebrows before. The Justice Department sued MWI in 2002.
The unresolved case accuses the worldwide company of fraudulently helping Nigeria obtain $74 million in taxpayer-backed loans for overpriced and unnecessary water pumps. Yet even pending accusations against MWI didn't stop the government from awarding it a lucrative contract.
It pays to have connections. But not for New Orleans. The city is heading into another hurricane season bracing for the worst with compromised drainage canals.
"This could put a lot of our people in jeopardy," said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco. "It begs the questions: Are we really safe?"
The Bush Administration's hurricane recovery czar in the Gulf Coast says there's no need to panic. "The corps is working as fast as it can to get the systems back up," said Donald Powell. "The levee system is better than it has ever been."
His comments carry the same ring of truth the President's did after Katrina when Mr. Bush praised former FEMA boss Michael Brown for doing "a heckuva job."