Update, Sept. 7, 2020: It’s Labor Day Weekend in the US, and even though most of us now also call home “the office,” Ars staff is taking a long weekend to rest and relax. The end of August marked 15 years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, the federal levees failed, and the city of New Orleans changed forever. We planned on resurfacing a few pieces from the archives to keep the lights on over this holiday, so we’re resurfacing this look at how NASA managed to weather the impact of Katrina at its Michoud Assembly Facility just outside New Orleans. This story originally ran in August 2015 and it appears unchanged below.
MICHOUD, La.—On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina came, the federal levees failed, and chaos ensued in the New Orleans metro area.
By now the damage is well documented. So many people were displaced that New Orleans still only sits at approximately 80 percent of its pre-storm population a decade later. More than 1,200 people died—the most for a US storm since 1928. And 80 percent of the city flooded, causing property damage since estimated at $108 billion by the National Hurricane Center. Almost regardless of metric, Katrina stands as the most devastating Atlantic storm to ever hit the US.
Yet one day before Katrina, Malcolm Wood had to go into work.
Wood lived roughly an hour away in Picayune, Mississippi, and luckily the rest of his family had the means and access to get north to Hattiesburg for safety. But unlike most folks working in Greater New Orleans while living in the Mississippi Delta or Southern Louisiana, Wood’s company refused to shut down on the eve of the storm of the century—despite New Orleans’ first-ever mandatory evacuation. It couldn’t. For starters, billions in prior and future work were on the line. The livelihood of Wood’s direct coworkers—more than 2,000 colleagues—was too. Heck, the entire national operation that Wood was a part of likely hung in the balance depending on whether his facility, just 15 miles east of the Lower 9th Ward, could survive.
So Wood, a large and capable man who’d already logged 20-plus years of employment at the same location, set out to do the job he was assigned. Facing direct impact from a 400-miles-across stormfront and 120+ mph winds, he was part of a 38-person team that had to ride out Hurricane Katrina on site to defend the company’s 832-acre water adjacent facility. The goal? Keep as much of it intact and online as possible.
This task was daunting—“We knew from the weather station 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 traveled the roughly 40 miles down to tiny Michoud, Louisiana, and prepared to spend the night at Building 320. The unassuming office space sits toward the back of NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, where the organization’s fuel tanks have been made since the 1960s.
It’d be the first night of roughly 30 straight that Wood and company would spend on the Michoud grounds.
Keep the light on
As you might expect given its large Southeastern US contingent, NASA has plans in place for storm mitigation. Michoud in particular, given its location, had faced 25 to 30 such events in its time before Katrina. As Wood explained, ride out crews are part of the typical pre- and post- storm processes. Among their duties, a ride out crew tours facilities to identify any possible areas susceptible to damage, ties down any materials that could prove dangerous if blown about, maintains provisions and generators on site, and eventually helps navigate whatever the aftermath brings in order to get the facility back online. If a storm looks bad enough (and Katrina qualified), the ride out crew will also be the only group on site, a last line of defense against the elements. “We’ve had numerous storms we’ve been here for and gone through, but usually it’s two days, three days and you’re back up and running,” Wood told Ars. “This was so much different.”
Wood claims some of the memories are gone 10 years after the storm, but he can recall much of what that initial 24 hours felt like. The rains began overnight on the 28th. It came so heavily, with winds so loud, that soon you couldn’t stand outside Building 320 and make out any of the normally visible campus—including Building 450, the all-important pumphouse at the very southern end of the facilities near a then 17-foot levee. To maintain a sense of calm, Wood remembers simply reverting to hyperfocus, becoming “fixated on something.”
“There’s a little light down at the pump house, so as long as I saw that light, I knew the pump was running,” Wood said. “I knew they were pumping water just to keep the rain out. We didn’t know if we’d been flooded, but if you stand in front of this building (320), this would be where we’d see the water rise. If it didn’t hit the first step here, we were OK.”
Initially, some of Wood’s ride out colleagues were stationed in the pumphouse. They monitored whether the Caterpillar pumps inside, four devices capable of handling 62,000 gallons of water per minute, could prevent the rising waters from overtaking the levee and flooding the manufacturing area a few hundred yards away near Building 320. But NASA protocol accounts for the safety of even its bravest ride out crew members. Once winds reach a certain gale force, everyone must be brought inside a secure area (in this case, Building 320) and remain on lockdown until the danger subsides. During Katrina, this tipping point came at 3am.
“We don’t normally abandon the pumphouse, but we had to go get them in the middle of the night and bring them back,” Wood recalls. “So in the early morning, two guys took a dumptruck and it was pretty bleak—you couldn’t see the roadway, and it was dark on top of that. Katrina was about the first time I can remember in my years of being here that we lost electricity to the site. I mean the city lost electricity—that’s unique.“
From that point on, Wood believes it was truly “touch and go.” Based on previous storms, he was confident the ride out team could get the facilities running again if only nature gave them the chance. But the destructive potential of Katrina was painfully evident even in the moment, and the ride out crew was well aware of the ramifications. This was 2005, the Columbia tragedy had happened a mere two years earlier, and Michoud was expected to retrofit a number of external tanks as part of the mission to return to space. While everyone knew that the space program would be ending sometime in next the decade, losing Michoud would dramatically affect that timeframe.
“If we lost the levee, we would shut down the NASA space program,” Wood says. “We manufacture every vehicle here, so how are you going to get to space unless you go through New Orleans? That’s the most catastrophic event you could’ve had. If Michoud was totally flooded, NASA has to say, ‘Alright, we’re out of the space business right now.’ That would’ve been years and years of damage.”
Wood was the facilities director at the time, and as he saw it, drainage was never the issue. The facilities’ drainage system could hold a certain amount of water and, given some amount of time, that would eventually flow out. But if the pumps quit at all while the water was still coming, that calculation suddenly gets 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 them too hard ran the risk of overheating and failure. Ultimately, Wood and company chose to push the throttle—it worked out.
“I never thought there’d be a risk, but the way it was raining, you could look at the roadways and know you were never going to pump that,” Wood says. “Our calculation was roughly a billion gallons of water swept out, so we kept the pumps going because you always had some kind of seepage coming back.”
That next morning, the Michoud ride out team learned it had accomplished its primary task: the facility wasn’t underwater. However, it was seemingly the only thing on Old Gentilly Road—the main manufacturing drag of Michoud—that wasn’t.
“We didn’t know until the next morning (8/30) that we were basically an island,” Wood says. “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 never imagine you’ll be surrounded by water. We kept our pumps going and did the right things, what we were trained to do. That next day and the catastrophic 30 days later, that’s where you see people doing unusual things.”
Listing image by Nathan Mattise