- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — They work round-the-clock, sleep on cots and wear other people’s clothes.

The hundreds of workers who run the city’s pumps and water system with the Sewerage & Water Board are very tired. They cope with low spirits and tell of losing their homes in Hurricane Katrina’s devastating inundation.

“We’re working 24-seven, 24-seven,” said Lawrence Brue, a water purification operator.

Their task is monumental. Katrina flooded nearly the entire pumping and drainage system that was built up over the past century to bring civilization to the swampland on which New Orleans sits.

Even the water system’s power plant — not far from the high ground of the Mississippi River — was flooded. One station in the eastern part of the city, where the worst flooding occurred, is completely underwater and may not get back on line for weeks, if not months.

Slowly, the city’s gigantic pumps are coming on line. But it’s going to be a hard job to pump the city dry with the electrical systems waterlogged and debris of all sorts — including bodies — to deal with.

Jarvis McCelos, a utility plant worker, said the city’s streets will most likely resurface from west to east. Workers will only be able to get pumps going once they can enter stations and dry out and clean engines.

In the meantime, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has brought in some portable pumps to begin flushing the city out. But they alone will not do the job.

Water levels have gone down noticeably in many areas in recent days, though water still covers an estimated 50 percent of the city.

There are other difficulties to get over. Many of the Water Board’s trucks were lost in the flooding. Much of the sewer system has probably been damaged and cracks will need to be fixed by tearing up roads. Also, a number of workers have walked off the job under the pressure and dangers of the past days, he said.

“You could write a book about what these guys have been through,” said Jason Higginbotham, the Water Board’s emergency manager.

If that book is written, Mr. McCelos and Al Stubbs, a pumping station operator, would be among the protagonists.

They were at station No. 17 when Katrina came ashore and punched holes in the city’s levees. Surging water flooded the bottom floor of the station.

In the long, dreadful hours after the city reached the apex of misery — when the water inside the ring of levees matched the level in Lake Pontchartrain — the workers lived off rations in their waterlogged station waiting for rescuers to show up by helicopter and boat.

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