It may not look like much, but Building 320 housed the 38 members of Michoud's ride out team during Hurricane Katrina.Nathan Mattise

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, Woods company refused to shut down on the eve of the storm of the century—despite New Orleans' first-ever mandatory evacuation. It couldnt. For starters, billions in prior and future work were on the line. The livelihood of Woods 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 whod 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 companys 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 NASAs Michoud Assembly Facility, where the organization's fuel tanks have been made since the 1960s.

Itd 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. “Weve had numerous storms weve been here for and gone through, but usually its two days, three days and youre 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 couldnt 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.”

“Theres 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 didnt know if wed been flooded, but if you stand in front of this building (320), this would be where wed see the water rise. If it didnt hit the first step here, we were OK.”

  • Building 450 represented the frontlines for keeping Katrina's waters at bay. Nathan Mattise
  • Here is the machinery powering the pumps inside the waterfront shack. Nathan Mattise

Initially, some of Woods 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 dont 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 couldnt 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—thats 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? Thats the most catastrophic event you couldve had. If Michoud was totally flooded, NASA has to say, Alright, were out of the space business right now. That wouldve been years and years of damage.”

  • Here's a satellite image of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. See that green spec in the upper right (northeast) portion of the map? NASA
  • Highlighted in yellow, that's the Michoud Assembly Facility essentially becoming an island during the storm. NASA

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 thered 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 wasnt underwater. However, it was seemingly the only thing on Old Gentilly Road—the main manufacturing drag of Michoud—that wasnt.

“We didnt 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 youll 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, thats where you see people doing unusual things.”

Listing image by Nathan Mattise


Water was merely the primary concern of the first 24 hours; Hurricane Katrina left its mark on the facilities even if Michoud was the rare speck of land to escape flooding. Roofs were lost to strong winds, one building even blew out entirely. External Tank 122 took some damage. Spots along the water supply were lost due to buildings being down, and power was out in many areas. Put simply, “It was more damage than we had in the past, yeah,” Wood recalls.

Woods focus shifted dramatically at this point—“You really understand Maslows hierarchy of needs," as he put it—and the team now had four main objectives. The top priority was simply making sure members of the ride out crew were OK in the day-to-day. After all, in the first week or so after the storms impact, these employees not only had to worry about facility recovery, but they were trying to locate family and friends elsewhere to see how the storm impacted loved ones. Cell lines were down, SAT phones were even severely restricted. And as time went on, NASA discovered approximately 600 Michoud employees would lose their homes to the storm. "There were very few people whose personal belongings, family, and home were not affected," Wood says. "But they continued to work here."

Living conditions on site werent great, but the team did what they could. Wood slept on a recliner, others had air mattresses. Generators kept AC and electricity going in crucial buildings, and the 80-gallon water supply kept people and essentials clean at the start. “You learn certain things; I didnt know you could flush a toilet just by—you may not want to write this—but by pouring a five-gallon bucket into a toilet,” Wood says. “You learn a lot about peoples resiliency.” So while people certainly worried or mourned (“People had their own little pity parties, I had a few of mine own,” he admits), morale remained high, given all of the ride out crew and the facility itself survived the initial impact.

The next two priorities were of equal importance: the Michoud ride out crew needed to simultaneously assess and repair the facilities to get back to work ASAP, and they needed to support the military search and rescue initiatives that would eventually use their facilities as a home base given its strategic location east of New Orleans.

“After about two or three weeks, we turned into a military base basically—3,000 national guard, marines, SEAL teams, Canadian forces, everyone doing search and rescue,” Wood says. “We were the only green grass in New Orleans, so we were the only place for it.”

Work days evolved into 12-, 14-, maybe even 16-hour affairs. Teams would evaluate buildings in order of priority and determine the problems: does it have water or electricity? Are circuits flooded, or would anything prevent that stuff from being fixed? Can the basic structure be stabilized? Has mold or wildlife taken over? Goals as simple as “open the building door” could stretch into a two-day affair between assessment, developing a plan, getting the expert, taking care of the necessary labor, and then finally seeing if that previously automated gate would budge again. "We had one factory, 43 acres with no air conditioning, no electricity, and barely any light," Wood recalls. "You can imagine what it's like to enter a 43-acre factory thats black."

For the most part, the recovery team remained small during that first month in order to help with management and the logistics of having people living on site. Depending on what the tasks at hand were, NASA would helicopter in specialists—electrical or mechanical engineers, facilities folks, etc.—from nearby facilities so they could stay a night or two, complete a mission, and fly back in a few days. On off days, military personnel might even chip in to stay busy, doing things like laying tarp for a temporary roof in order to aid the slowly growing Michoud team.

  • This building once housed external tank repairs immediately after Katrina… today it serves GI Joe and its Hollywood ilk. Nathan Mattise
  • For reference: this is External Tank 94, the last ET on site at Michoud. It never flew into space and will instead enter a retirement home (read: science museum) in California next year. Nathan Mattise
  • ET 94 is a Lightweight Tank, meaning it only weighed 65,000 pounds… while being 154 feet long and over 27 feet in diameter. Nathan Mattise

But within those first 30 days of 24/7 living and working, the facilities were up and running at a minimum again. Wood and his colleagues did without full power and at times clean water, focusing on a necessary building or two per week to fix. And somehow despite the workload, the damage, the dangers, and the fatigue, everyone survived.

"One of the amazing things about those 30 days, while we had considerable damage, we didnt have any injuries or accidents," Wood recalls. &quRead More – Source

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