Official testifies he knew nothing about pump evac

GRETNA, La. (AP) - An official in charge of drainage for Jefferson Parish during Hurricane Katrina says he knew nothing about the parish's "doomsday plan" that would send his pump operators 110 miles away to shelter in Washington Parish until the day before the storm struck land.

The Times-Picayune reports Kazem Alikhani, now director of the parish's public works department, was the first witness called to testify by plaintiffs' attorneys Thursday.

Alikhani said he also was unaware that he himself was required to remain in the parish's emergency operations center during the storm - as the doomsday plan required - so he, too, evacuated with his workers before Katrina's landfall on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005.

"I didn't become aware of it until Sunday morning," Alikhani testified of the evacuations. Plaintiffs contend the unstaffed drainage pumps caused flooding that damaged 40,000 residences and businesses. They want the jury to hold the parish, former Parish President Aaron Broussard and Consolidated Drainage District No. 2 liable for the damage.

The parish's attorneys say the parish is immune from liability, because the Broussard had and followed its emergency operations plan. And they have not conceded that the unstaffed pumping stations caused the flooding. The evacuation order was given late on the morning before Katrina's landfall, he testified. The next afternoon, as Katrina's winds subsided, pump operators began trickling back into Jefferson.

They were dropped off at the foot of the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and driven to their stations in East Jefferson Levee District high-water vehicles, he said. Some pumping stations were back on that afternoon, he testified. Most of the pumps were back on by that night, although some of them were inoperable because of storm damage, he said. Jefferson Parish was drained by Aug. 31, two days after Katrina, Alikhani testified. He conceded that some flooding could have been averted had the pumps been on during Katrina.

"You knew that during Hurricane Katrina, without pumping, flooding would be worse, correct?" plaintiffs' attorney Richard Martin asked. "In some areas," Alikhani replied. He said, however, that operating pumps do not assure there will be no flooding. Alikhani also denied that Walter Maestri, the emergency operations director at the time, told him about the doomsday plan. That contradicts Maestri's testimony on Wednesday.

Maestri also said he provided the overall emergency operations plan, which included the doomsday protocol for employee evacuations, to Broussard's top aide, Tim Whitmer, and assumed Whitmer relayed it. Broussard has denied knowing about it. Maestri testified that copies of the plan were given to the Parish Council, but council members have said they, too, knew nothing about it.