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Not on My Watch: The Saga of the Michoud Marshworks Heroes

    By Patrick Scheuermann, NASA Michoud Chief Operating Officer (2005-2007)

    Undaunted heroes - Marshworks employees Dan Doell, Royal Holland and Joe Barrett never gave a thought to abandoning their post during the nighttime hours when Katrina’s fury was at its worst.

    Star-Spangled Banner of honor - NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin salutes the Michoud Marshworks heroes in front of a tattered but proud U.S. flag that withstood the ravages of Katrina (Jan. 5, 2006). Behind Griffin is Rex Geveden, NASA’s associate administrator from 2005-2007.

    On Monday, Aug. 22, 2005, with great anticipation I began a new assignment in my NASA career, a posting as chief operating officer of the agency’s historic Michoud Assembly Facility, where the giant Saturn V rocket first stage was built during the Apollo program and where external tanks for the space shuttle are assembled. My expectations for a relatively calm introduction to the job were soon jolted by the news that a fierce tropical storm named Katrina was passing over southern Florida and gathering tremendous destructive energy while barreling across the Gulf of Mexico. That Friday, as my colleagues and I viewed weather reports showing Katrina ominously making a beeline toward the greater New Orleans area, we knew we were in for a challenge beyond our wildest imagination.

    Among Michoud’s employees are a special group known as the “Marshworks Team” who rode out Katrina’s landfall the evening of Aug. 28 and early morning of Aug. 29, 2005, protecting vital space program hardware. In so doing, Administrator Michael Griffin said they “did nothing less than save America’s space program from, quite literally, being grounded for years.” These dauntless 38 recipients of NASA’s Exceptional Bravery Medal proved throughout the ordeal of Katrina that not all of NASA’s heroes fly in space.

    For most Americans, the story of Katrina’s landfall was playing out in coastal Mississippi and near the Superdome and surrounding neighborhoods, some 12 miles west of Michoud. But where we were, our focus was on the 832 precious acres where 4,300 dedicated workers (including NASA, Lockheed Martin, U.S. Department of Agriculture National Finance Center and U.S. Coast Guard employees) were performing a number of tasks, with our NASA and contractor people assembling approximately $1.5 billion worth of spaceflight hardware, namely external tanks, to support upcoming space shuttle flights.

    Katrina, no polite visitor, passed right over the facility and dropped more than 14 inches of rain, with her winds gusting over 150 miles per hour. The 20-foot storm surge crested the levees on two sides of the facility, and barges, torn from their nearby moorings, banged against the levees, threatening a breach. Every building sustained some level of damage, and several buildings will not be useable until major structural repairs are made. Municipal electric power, water, and gas service was lost. Cellular and land-based telephone systems failed within hours due to the extensive flooding in the region. But unlike the rest of East New Orleans, the Michoud facility was the only spot of dry land within eight miles. Our main building, which could house two Superdomes, survived the ordeal.

    We can credit Michoud’s survival to workers who performed with sustained courage during the height of the storm, and then took on the more painstaking challenge of recovery with incredible focus on their mission. That mission, building external tanks, remains intact and on schedule to support upcoming space shuttle flights. While Katrina is now just a memory to most Americans, we should realize that in rebuilding the New Orleans area, extraordinary circumstances occur on a daily basis. Workers struggle to rebuild their personal lives while contributing unabated to NASA’s long-term goals.

    Of course, recovery and rebuilding was far from people’s minds as the storm approached. That weekend, most of the Michoud employees scrambled to take their families to safer ground. Following a contingency plan developed after Hurricane Betsy punished New Orleans in 1965, I went to the Stennis Space Center to prepare for the initial recovery work required following the storm’s passage. Meanwhile, a group of 38 well-trained volunteers formed a ride-out team and remained at their posts, determined to do their utmost to protect Michoud and the valuable national assets it houses.

    Fitting for a group of this caliber, they have a name, which draws on Kelly Johnson’s famed Lockheed Skunk Works aircraft design team. Carrying on in the Skunk Works spirit, the team came to be known as the Marshworks, in recognition of the snakes and other swamp creatures that took shelter from Katrina on Michoud’s grounds.

    Once Katrina started battering our region, the Marshworks volunteers gave their all throughout the evening of Sunday, Aug. 28 and the subsequent day to protect Michoud’s spaceflight hardware, electrical power systems, roofing, security, radio and telephone communications. When electrical power was lost late on Sunday, the ride-out crew worked feverishly to keep the backup generators on line, thus ensuring that Michoud’s water pumps would continue to run.

    At the height of the storm, Katrina’s surge was overtopping Michoud’s protective levees; our pumping station was operating at full capacity in a valiant effort to keep Michoud dry. It was at these stations that the most critical events of the storm played out in Monday’s pre-dawn hours. The pumps were vital for keeping out floodwaters from the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. One only had to see the site from the air in the ensuing days, where Michoud appeared as an island of green in a sea of brown mud, to understand that many lives would have been lost and the facility would have been inundated had the generators and pumps failed. Those were the stakes for the brave and isolated Marshworks volunteers.

    Star-Spangled Banner of honor - NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin salutes the Michoud Marshworks heroes in front of a tattered but proud U.S. flag that withstood the ravages of Katrina. Behind Griffin is Rex Geveden, NASA’s associate administrator from 2005-2007.

    Undaunted heroes - Marshworks employees Dan Doell, Royal Holland and Joe Barrett never gave a thought to abandoning their post during the nighttime hours when Katrina’s fury was at its worst.

    Two of those heroes, Joe Barrett and Dan Doell, Michoud’s pump house operators, fought through the night to keep flooding from occurring. But as the hurricane grew in intensity and sustained winds exceeded 55 miles per hour, the team on the ground had to pull out Joe and Dan. Two Lockheed Martin employees, Guy Jackson and John Pucheu, headed out in a pickup truck to retrieve their colleagues. The storm was now so fierce Guy and John couldn’t see 10 feet in front of them; they had to use sticks to find the edge of the road leading into the pump house. When the time came to depart their station, Joe and Dan drew on their experience to make a “gut call” as to the settings on the pumps in order to keep the waters at bay. In hindsight, they made exactly the right call, because any other setting would have either run the pumps dry or they would not have kept up with the incoming flood. This single action, as a microcosmic example of many actions taken by the ride-out and recovery teams, may possibly have saved the Space Shuttle Program. If not for this team there would have been at least eight feet of standing water in the factory. The four diesel-powered water pumps had expelled more than a billion gallons of rainwater and spared the facility from the destruction typical of the rest of New Orleans.

    Throughout the months following the storm’s passing, top priority at Michoud was given to personnel safety and industrial hygiene. Our clean-up crews observed utmost caution to dodge the many snakes, alligators and nutria that had taken temporary residence at Michoud while the work of facility recovery advanced. Focus on the mission, attention to detail and unbelievable dedication resulted in a perfect post-storm safety record in the following 16 months. A record of over 100,000 employee hours of rooftop (some as high as 240 feet high) recovery operations were realized with no incidents or accidents.

    Another example of timely decision making came when we attempted to resume external tank production operations in full on Oct. 31, 2005. At this point it became evident another significant roadblock stood in the way. The entire New Orleans city water supply, the main supply to Michoud, was knocked out of commission. In order to operate needed air conditioners in the factory, we had to have water for the cooling towers. New Orleans officials could neither guarantee nor predict when water would be restored. We made a bold decision to drill a well for the water supply, which supplied about one million gallons of water per day, enough to run the cooling towers. We were very fortunate in this regard as city water services were not re-established until the following spring, seven months after the storm. For lack of a well, external tank production operations would have been delayed significantly. During the recovery period our worker’s spirits were boosted when external tanks for STS-119 and STS-120 returned from the Kennedy Space Center to Michoud. This allowed the workforce to engage in repair work on the tanks, and in a large measure to recover a sense of normalcy.

    As if the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was not enough, Hurricane Rita followed right behind it, making landfall on the Texas-Louisiana border on Sept. 24, 2005. Fortunately, Michoud workers once again rose to the occasion and re-engaged in recovery operations to prevent any more significant damage from occurring. Throughout these trying days there were no distinctions between employee badges; a person’s position in the organization did not matter one bit. Everyone pitched in to keep recovery efforts from Katrina on track and to prepare for Rita’s arrival. In addition to the critical mass of regular Michoud employees, Michoud became host to over 3,000 military troops who set up a Forward Operating Base in order to conduct recovery and rescue work in St. Bernard and Orleans Parishes. In their “spare” time, these military troops were an added blessing to the Michoud regulars and were up on the rooftops putting down tarps, helping to protect damaged buildings as best we could as Rita approached. When Rita drew near, we decided to move all at-risk external tanks out of harm’s way to more secure buildings. Had it not been for this effort and unique partnering, Michoud tooling and facilities, critical to the tank production work, would have sustained significant damage and at minimum caused a very significant schedule risk to future shuttle flights.

    Looking back on these amazing days, I’m convinced the heroic efforts of the Michoud ride-out and recovery team saved America’s space program from disaster and a very significant delay in space shuttle flights, if not causing the end of the Space Shuttle Program. There could not be a better example of the dedication to NASA’s mission in recent memory than that demonstrated by the people of Michoud. Throughout this ordeal the Michoud workforce adopted the Apollo Program mantra of “not on our watch” as daily motivation for their efforts to bring the factory back on line and avoid interruptions in the shuttle program. These people exemplify the entire NASA workforce and the drive in their spirit to “get us boots back on the moon.” As Administrator Michael Griffin said at the ceremony in which the Marshworks volunteers received NASA’s Exceptional Bravery Medal, “Some time in the near future, a spaceship will be flying toward a lunar research base. That spaceship will contain equipment made with the greatest expertise and care in the Crescent City here at Michoud. And when that spaceship is en route to the moon, we should all look back in time and say a word of thanks to the Marshworks volunteers and the other heroes of Michoud.”