The public works response to Hurricane Katrina

David Himes
Assistant Director
Metro Nashville Public Works
City of Nashville, Tennessee

Imagine your own community where 90% of the residences are either totally destroyed or are uninhabitable due to structural damage or severe flood damage. All businesses have also suffered the same fate. No corner gas station, grocery, fast-food outlet or even Wal-Mart. No fire stations, police stations, courthouse or public utility offices. No doctor's offices or hospitals. No electricity, natural gas, telephones, cell phones, air conditioning, cable television or any other means of communication. No food, water or ice. The local infrastructure is devastated. Numerous bridges and roadways are totally destroyed. Local government buildings, vehicles and equipment are lost. Local government records (including all plans, as-builts, etc.) are destroyed.

Temperatures hovering around 100, humidity in the 90s, the stench of rotting food, animal carcasses, wet and mildewing debris, and untreated sewerage. Living and working with standing water, mud, mosquitos, alligators, and other unwanted guests. And everywhere you look you see people wandering around with that blank stare on their faces...that look of the shock of losing everything they have, and the look of no hope.

This was the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.

The Metro Nashville Department of Public Works and Water Services recently returned from a deployment to Waveland, Mississippi. They were deployed through an Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) mission to assist in the restoration of water and sewer services.

The response included 28 employees, 18 pieces of motorized equipment, tents, generators, food, water, communications equipment, and the supplies necessary to fully sustain this task force. To support the task force, members and equipment from Metro Nashville's TNTF-2 Urban Search and Rescue Task Force's logistics section joined the effort. Also included was a representative of Nashville's Office of Emergency Management and four Sheriff's Deputies for security.

Waveland is a small town located on the Gulf Coast just west of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. It was just to the right of the eye wall of Katrina, and the coastal area was totally devastated by the 140 mph Category 4 hurricane force winds and the storm surge estimated at 35 feet. Inland areas also received hurricane force winds and storm surge flooding. In this community, what was not destroyed by wind and waves was flooded.

The local water and sewer utility was heavily damaged and not operating. The utility's water is obtained from a wellhead, pumped to an elevated storage tank, chlorinated, and then pumped through the distribution system. The sewer system is made up of residential grinder pumps and numerous sewer lift stations. The sewage is then pumped to a regional, privately-operated treatment facility.

  Base camp at Stennis Airport

The Metro Nashville task force arrived at the Stennis Airport in Hancock County, Mississippi on Tuesday, September 13, at 10:00 p.m. This airport had been converted into a tent city with approximately 2,000 emergency workers. This work force included the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Mississippi Emergency Management, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Air and Army National Guard units from several states, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), urban search and rescue task forces, and emergency management personnel from several states. The work force slept the first night in their vehicles or on cots in a parking lot.

The following morning after setting up the base camp, the work force held meetings with the Emergency Support Function 3 (ESF-3) representatives in the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center, obtained FEMA identification badges, and attended a briefing. Next they met with representatives of the Hancock County Water and Sewer Utility, toured the district, and made preliminary plans for the following day.

The work force was divided into a water group and a sewer group. Each group was then divided into three crews and teamed up with local utility employees. Each crew relied upon the local employees for their knowledge of the area and their institutional knowledge of the system; as mentioned earlier, there were no plans or as-builts available.

The water group concentrated their initial efforts at the wellhead. New pump motors, controls, chlorinator, and a generator were installed. The sewer group concentrated on the sewer lift stations. Each site was cleaned by jet vactors, and pumps, motors and controls were checked for damage.

The water group coordinated the timing of boil water notices in preparation of water restoration services. Procedures were also implemented that allowed homeowners to request service for trailers that had been provided as temporary housing.

With the wellhead back in service, crews began the task of valving off distribution lines and identifying and repairing water main breaks. This was a very difficult task because all of the roadways were covered with mud and even locating valves was difficult.

  Metro jet/vactor crew cleaning sewer lift station

The sewer group continued to clean and repair lift stations. Portable generators powered stations during repair missions. Managers coordinated with the local electric utility to prioritize locations for permanent restoration.

Crews also ran water and sewer lines in a temporary trailer park established by FEMA. In addition, connections were completed for trailers that were provided for the local utility employees whose homes were destroyed or uninhabitable.

On September 22, all response personnel with the exception of rescue teams were evacuated due to the anticipated arrival of Hurricane Rita. The task force loaded up and returned to Nashville in order to re-supply and prepare to return when conditions were safe.

A second deployment occurred on September 29 with fresh personnel. They continued the work of completing the restoration of the water system. With the sewer lift stations operational, work focused on replacing or repairing the grinder pumps at individual locations that had requested service. This involved replacement of the pumps, in most cases replacement of the control panels and the appropriate wiring. During this deployment the group restored service to over 100 grinder pump systems.

The deployment ended on October 21. The Nashville task force came back with the knowledge and satisfaction that they were part of a response to one of the worst natural disasters in history. The appreciation and hospitality of the local government employees and citizens of Mississippi deeply touched members of the Nashville task force. They were very proud to be able to assist their fellow public works employees on both a personal and professional level, to restore the operation of the water system, and put the sewer system well on the road to recovery.

David Himes can be reached at (615) 862-8755 or