U.S. Water News Online
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Restoring drinkable water to a city the
size of New Orleans could take months given the damage caused by
Hurricane Katrina, said L.D. McMullen, who restored water to Des
Moines after extensive flooding in 1993.
McMullen, general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, was
responsible for getting water to 350,000 customers after the flooded
Raccoon River broke through a levee protecting the water plant.
Des Moines residents awakened on July 11, 1993, to find the city
water treatment plant had flooded and shut down at about 3 a.m. that
Their lives would be disrupted for nearly three weeks as water
officials struggled to clean up and restore the water system. In the
interim, the Iowa National Guard trucked in tanks of water.
At the time, Des Moines was the largest city that had experienced
complete water system failure.
McMullen said he has talked with the Washington-based Association
of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which is helping hurricane-damaged
cities plan to restore safe drinking water to residents.
"Based off my experience and what I've seen there, I think they're
in for a long haul," McMullen said.
He said it took his workers two days to get the floodwater out of
the treatment plant, but expects that process could take a month or
longer in New Orleans.
The next step, restoring reliable power to the large pumps that
move the water through pipelines, took about a week during the Des
Moines flood because two nearby power substations had been knocked
McMullen said the New Orleans power grid appears to have
significant damage and will likely take longer than a week to restore
once floodwaters recede.
Once the water works plant is running again, significant measures
must be taken to clean the entire distribution system
The Des Moines system has 1,000 miles of pipes that had to be
flushed and disinfected.
"We had teams all over he city flushing fire hydrants and anything
that we could get a lot of water out of," McMullen said. "We fed a
lot of chlorine into the water system to the point that it would kill
any bugs in the pipeline."
After about three days of flushing the system with chlorine, they
went to damaged homes to shut off broken pipes so water wouldn't
continue pumping out of the system.
"That is probably the most difficult, getting all contaminated
water flushed out from the homes and isolating homes that had broken
pipes," he said. "We had teams of plumbers that went in and turned
off water to the point that people could clean up their own systems."
That process took another week.
McMullen set up banks of phones with plumbers answering questions
and telling people how to flush out their home pipes and make
"Overall, it took us 19 days to get the water back to drinking
water quality throughout all the homes," he said.
The immediate challenge in New Orleans will be getting clean water
to residents while the system is down. Soft drink companies and even
breweries bottled water during the Des Moines flood, but many of the
bottles wound up stacked in a warehouse, McMullen said.
The most successful delivery system were the tankers of clean
water brought by National Guard members to neighborhood grocery
stores, where residents filled their own containers.
"In a very short term, bottled water didn't work," he said.
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