Update, September 7, 2020: It’s Labor Day Weekend in the US, and while most of us now also call “the office” home, the Ars staff is taking a long weekend to rest and relax. At the end of August, it had been 15 years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, the federal levees failed and changed the city of New Orleans forever. We planned to re-surface a few pieces from the archives to keep the lights on during this holiday, so we show how NASA managed to withstand the impact of Katrina at its Michoud assembly facility just outside. New Orleans. This story originally ran in August 2015 and appears unchanged below.
MICHOUD, La.—On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit, federal levees failed and chaos ensued in the New Orleans metro area.
The damage is now well documented. So many were displaced that a decade later, New Orleans is still only about 80 percent of its pre-storm population. More than 1,200 people died — the most for a storm in the US since 1928. And 80 percent of the city flooded, causing property damage estimated by the National Hurricane Center at $108 billion. Almost regardless of metric, Katrina stands as the most devastating Atlantic storm to ever hit the US.
But a day before Katrina, Malcolm Wood had to go to work.
Wood lived about an hour away in Picayune, Mississippi, and luckily the rest of his family had the means and access to travel north to Hattiesburg for safety. But unlike most people who work in Greater New Orleans while living in the Mississippi Delta or southern Louisiana, Wood’s company refused to close on the eve of the storm of the century — despite New Orleans’ first-ever mandatory evacuation. It couldn’t. For starters, billions in past and future work were at stake. So was the livelihood of Wood’s immediate colleagues—more than 2,000 colleagues. Heck, the entire national operation Wood was a part of probably hung on the line depending on whether his facility, just 15 miles east of the Lower 9th Ward, could survive.
So Wood, a tall and capable man who had worked in the same location for over 20 years, set out to do the work assigned to him. Facing a direct impact from a 400-mile storm front and 120+ mph winds, he was part of a 38-man team tasked with driving out of Hurricane Katrina on sight to defend the company’s 832-acre water-adjacent facility. The target? Keep as much intact and online as possible.
This task was daunting: “We knew from the weather station that it was going to be worse than previous storms,” Wood says. “It looked like the perfect storm” – but the stakes were literally out of this world. So Wood made the 40-mile drive to tiny Michoud, Louisiana, and prepared to spend the night in Building 320. The modest office space is at the back of NASAs Michoud Assembly Facility, where the organization’s fuel tanks have been made since the 1960s.
It would be the first night of about 30 nights that Wood and his party would spend on the Michoud site.
Keep the light on
As you might expect, given the large contingent in the southeastern US, NASA has plans in place for storm mitigation. Michoud in particular, given the location, had witnessed 25 to 30 such events in the pre-Katrina era. As Wood explained, ride shifts are part of the typical processes before and after the storm. Their duties include a crew tour of the facilities to identify potential areas prone to damage, tying down materials that could be hazardous if blown up, maintaining facilities and generators on site, and ultimately assisting. navigate what the aftermath brings to get the facility back online. If a storm looks bad enough (and Katrina qualifies), the outgoing team is also the only group on site, a last line of defense against the elements. “We’ve had countless storms that we’ve been here for and been through, but usually it takes two days, three days and you’re back to work,” Wood told Ars. “This was so very different.”
Wood claims that some memories are gone 10 years after the storm, but he can remember a lot of what those first 24 hours felt like. The rains started overnight on the 28th. It hit so hard, with wind so strong, that soon you couldn’t stand outside Building 320 and make out none of the normally visible campuses – including Building 450, the all-important pump house on the south side of the facilities in the near a 17-foot dike at the time. To maintain a sense of calm, Wood recalls simply going back into hyperfocus and becoming “fixed on something.”
“There’s a little light by the pump housing, so as long as I saw that light, I knew the pump was running,” Wood said. “I knew they pumped water to keep out the rain. We didn’t know if we were flooded, but if you were standing in front of this building (320), we would see the water rise here. If it wasn’t the first step here, we’d be okay.”
Initially, some of Wood’s outgoing colleagues were stationed in the pump house. They checked that the Caterpillar pumps inside, four devices capable of processing 62,000 gallons of water per minute, could prevent the rising water from overtaking the levee and flooding the production area a few hundred yards away at Building 320. But NASA protocol ensures the safety of even the bravest outbound crew. Once the winds reach a certain gale force, everyone should be taken to a secured area (in this case, Building 320) and kept locked until the danger subsides. During Katrina, this tipping point came at 3 a.m.
“Normally we don’t leave the pump house, but we had to go get them and bring them back in the middle of the night,” Wood recalls. “So early in the morning two guys took a dump truck and it was pretty gloomy – you couldn’t see the roadway and it was dark on top of that. Katrina was about the first time I can remember in the years I’ve been here when we ran out of electricity at the site. I mean, the city lost electricity – that’s unique.”
From then on, Wood believes it was really “touch and go”. Based on previous storms, he was confident the ride-out team would be able to run the facilities again if nature gave them the chance. But Katrina’s destructive potential was painfully apparent even at the time, and the crew was well aware of the consequences. This was 2005, the Columbia tragedy had happened just two years earlier, and Michoud was expected to modify a number of external tanks as part of the mission to return to space. While everyone knew the space program would end sometime in the next decade, Michoud’s loss would dramatically affect that time frame.
“If we lost the levee, we’d shut down the NASA space program,” Wood says. “We make every vehicle here, so how do you get into space if you don’t go through New Orleans? That’s the most catastrophic event you could have had. If Michoud was completely submerged, NASA should say, “Okay, we’re out of space now.” That would have been years and years of damage.”
Wood was the facilities director at the time, and as he saw it, drainage was never the problem. The facilities drainage system could hold a certain amount of water and, after some time, that would eventually drain. But if the pumps stop completely while the water was still coming, that calculation suddenly becomes tragically out of balance.
So that night the team had to make a decision. It was possible to change the speed of the pumps, but they were water-cooled devices, and pushing too hard risked overheating and failure. In the end, Wood and his company chose to push the throttle – they succeeded.
“I never thought there would be a risk, but the way it rained, you could look at the roads and know you’d never pump that up,” Wood says. “Our calculation was that about a billion gallons of water was being wiped out, so we kept the pumps running because you always had some kind of leak coming back.”
The next morning, the Michoud Ride Out team learned that it had accomplished its primary task: the facility was not flooded. However, it was seemingly the only thing on Old Gentilly Road – Michoud’s main production road – that it wasn’t.
“We didn’t realize we were actually an island until the next morning (8/30), says Wood. “We were surrounded by water. During the night and that next morning we knew there was a lot of rain and wind going on, but you can never imagine being surrounded by water. We kept our pumps running and doing the right things we were trained to do. The next day and the catastrophic 30 days later, you see people doing unusual things.”