More Than A Recovery: Working Hard In The Big Easy

By Erin Nelsen, Online Editor | April 2010 Vol. 237 No. 4

Meanwhile, ENO brought in consultants to look at the corrosion on its seawater-abused cast iron and steel pipes. It compared corrosion from the flooded areas to dry areas. It segmented the city into 13 parts based on dewatering. It explored creative financing measures, including grants and government partnerships, to keep costs down. And it weighed tricky problems that most rebuild projects never consider — for instance, what portion of the city’s population would come back.

“You couldn’t really make a leap and guess how many folks would return to the city. Essentially, we just came to the decision that you assume that they’ll all return. And you base your strategy and your planning on how a particular area is being repopulated,” said Winslow.

The strategy meant ENO wouldn’t plan for too few people and wind up under-serving citizens who came back. But it also gave the company flexibility to respond to areas as they repopulated rather than before. And as outage complaints poured in, it allowed the company to focus resources in the areas that were hardest hit.

With the time for strategic planning, ENO aimed for more than patching the system or simply laying down pipe that worked. The new system called for several significant upgrades designed to decrease the cost and frequency of repairs, while disrupting citizens’ lives as little as possible.

First, the system would be a high-pressure (90-pound) system, composed of durable, non-reactive high-density polyethylene pipe. It would deploy meters readable from off site. Contractor A & L Underground would install the pipe using directional drilling methods to keep streets open and costs down. And perhaps most attractive to the teams at ENO who would eventually be maintaining this system, the lines were to be moved from under the streets to under the sidewalks.

“I don’t know if you’ve been to New Orleans for awhile, but there are potholes everywhere and we get blamed for a lot of that,” explained Dufrene. “We were trying to eliminate our exposure in the street because there’s a lot of city street-paving projects that come through and make us move when we’re in the way. So if we could move to the sidewalk, that would eliminate a lot of our future costs.” Repairs would also be cheaper and would rarely require street closures in case of a leak or outage.

Making It Happen
With the plan set, ENO presented it to New Orleans City Council, suggesting an initial three-year schedule and a reevaluation after that time to assess the project’s continuation. The first year, already half gone by the start date, aimed for only 30 miles of pipe total. The second and third year called for 50 miles of pipe each. The project’s budget hovered near $500 million, with estimates for total cost around $577,000 per mile. Using funds from the Community Development Block Grant and insurance proceeds, ENO was expected to complete its mission without impacting customers’ rates. The city council gave its nod of support in June 2007, just a month after ENO emerged from bankruptcy.

The plan for New Orleans' gas rebuild, showing completed and targeted areas.

Once the project was under way, an ENO initiative toward incremental improvements showed its worth. Dufrene, the leader of the project team, credits that and his team’s hard work with the results they achieved.