NASA versus Katrina: August 29, 2005

It might not sound like much, but Building 320 was home to 38 members of the Michoud Riding Team during Hurricane Katrina.

Nathan Mattis

Updated September 7, 2020It’s the Labor Day weekend in the United States, and although most of us now call home “the office,” Ars employees take a long weekend to rest and relax. The end of August marked 15 years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, federal dams failed, and New Orleans changed forever. We planned to resurface a few pieces of the archive to keep the lights on during this holiday, so we’re re-highlighting this look at how NASA was able to overcome the Katrina influence at the Mechaud collection facility outside New Orleans. This story originally ran in August 2015 and looks unchanged below.

Michaud, Los Angeles – On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina came, federal levees failed, and chaos erupted in the New Orleans metro area.

Now the damage He trusted well. So many people have been displaced that New Orleans almost still sits 80 percent Of its inhabitants before the storm after a decade. More than 1,200 people were killed – the largest number killed in an American storm since 1928. 80 percent of the city sank, causing property damage since the National Hurricane Center estimated $ 108 billion. Nearly regardless of the metric scale, Hurricane Katrina is the most destructive Atlantic storm to ever hit the United States.

However, one day before Hurricane Katrina, Malcolm Wood had to go to work.

Wood lived about an hour away in Picayune, Mississippi, and fortunately the rest of his family had the means to reach Hattiesburg north in search of safety. But unlike most people who work in Greater New Orleans while staying in the Mississippi Delta or southern Louisiana, Wood refused to close on the eve of the Century Storm – despite the first mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. you could not. For beginners, Billions In past and future work on the line. It was Wood’s livelihood – its more than 2,000 – as well. Heck, the entire national operation Wood was a part of likely hangs in the balance depending on whether his facility, just 15 miles east of Lower Ninth, could survive.

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So Wood, a big and capable man who had already recorded 20 years of working on the same site, set out to do the job for which he was assigned. Facing direct impact from a storm front of 400 miles and winds of more than 120 mph, he was part of a team of 38 who had to bypass Hurricane Katrina Active To defend the company’s 832-acre adjacent water facility. Target? Keep as much of it intact and online as possible.

The task was daunting – “we learned from the weather station that it was going to be worse than previous storms,” ​​says Wood. “It looked like a perfect storm” – but the stakes were literally out of this world. So Wood traveled roughly 40 miles to tiny Michod, Louisiana, preparing to spend the night in Building 320. The modest office space is towards the back of NASA agency The Michood assembly facility, where the organization’s fuel tanks have been manufactured since the 1960s.

It will be almost the first night of 30 in a row that Wood and Company will spend on Michoud grounds.

Stay light

As you might expect, given the large unit in the southeastern United States, NASA has it Storm mitigation plans. Michaud in particular, given its location, experienced 25 to 30 such events in its time prior to Hurricane Katrina. As Wood explained, the ride crews are part of both pre- and post-storm operations. Among their duties, crew rides in facilities to identify any potential areas that are vulnerable to damage, tie up any potentially dangerous items if detonated, keep supplies and generators on site, and ultimately help navigate whatever the consequences bring in order to get the facility back up. Other online. If Storm seems bad enough (and Katrina qualifies), the riding crew will also be the only group on site, and the last line of defense against the elements. “We’ve been through many storms that we’ve been through here, but it usually takes two or three days and they come back and run,” Wood said. “That was a lot different.”

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Wood claims that some of the memories are gone after 10 years of the storm, but he can recall a lot of what those first 24 hours felt like. It started to rain at night on the 28th. It came so badly, and the winds are so loud, that you soon couldn’t stand outside Building 320 and draw any of the naturally visible campus – including Building 450, the most important fireplace at the south end of the facilities near that time the 17-foot dam. To maintain a sense of calm, Wood remembers simply returning to hyperfocus, to become “focused on something.”

“There is a little bit of light under the pump house, and as long as I saw that light, I knew the pump was on,” said Wood. “I knew they were just pumping water to prevent the rain. We didn’t know if we were flooded, but if you stood in front of this building (320), that would be where we would see the water rise. If you didn’t get to the first step here, We are fine. “

At first, some of Wood’s riding classmates were stationed in the chimney. Watch whether the caterpillar pumps inside, four devices capable of handling 62,000 gallons of water per minute, could prevent rising water from bypassing the dam and flooding the manufacturing area a few hundred meters near Building 320. But NASA’s protocol takes safety into account even from I encourage riding crew members. Once the wind has reached a certain wind force, everyone should be brought to a safe area (in this case, Building 320) and remain in lockdown until the danger subsides. During Hurricane Katrina, that turning point came at 3 in the morning.

“We don’t usually give up on landfills,” Wood recalls, “but we had to go get them in the middle of the night and bring them back.” “So early in the morning, two men took a dumpling truck and the situation was very bleak – you couldn’t see the road, the darkness was above that. Katrina was the first time in my years here that I remember losing electricity at the site. I mean, the city lost electricity – This is unique. “

From that point onwards, Wood thinks it was really “touch and go.” Building on previous storms, he was confident that the ride crew could restart the facilities again if nature gave them the chance. But the destructive potential of Hurricane Katrina was painfully apparent even now, and the ride crew was aware of the implications. This was 2005, The Columbia tragedy It had just happened two years earlier, and Mishud had been expected to modify a number of the outer tanks as part of his return to space mission. While everyone knew that the space program would end at some point in the next decade, losing Meshaud would drastically affect that timeframe.

“If we lose the dam, we will shut down the NASA space program,” Wood says. “We make every craft here, so how will it get to space unless it passes through New Orleans? This is the most catastrophic event you can experience. If the Mechaud is completely submerged, NASA has to say,” Well, we’re out of space now. That was years and years of damage. “

Wood was the facilities manager at the time, and as he saw it, drainage was not an issue at all. A facility’s sewage system can hold a certain amount of water, and with some time, it can eventually flow out. But if the pumps stop completely while the water continues to flow, this account suddenly comes out tragically.

So that night, the team had to make a decision. The pumps could have changed speed, but they were water-cooled appliances, and pushing them too hard puts them at risk of overheating and failure. Ultimately, Wood and company chose to press the throttle – it worked.

“I never thought there was going to be a danger, but the way it was raining, you can look at the roads and know you never pump that out,” says Wood. “Our calculations were about shoveling close to a billion gallons of water, so we kept the pumps going because there was always some kind of leakage coming back.”

The next morning, Michoud’s riding team learned that it had accomplished its primary mission: The facility was not underwater. However, it seemed that the only thing on Old Gentilly Road – Michoud’s main manufacturing hurdle – was not.

“We didn’t know until the next morning (8/30) that we were basically an island,” says Wood. We were surrounded by water. During the night and the next morning we knew there was a lot of rain and the wind going on, but you never imagine that you are surrounded by water. We kept our pumps running and did the right things, what we were trained to do. The next day and the disaster after 30 days, here you see people doing extraordinary things. “

Listing image by Nathan Mattis

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