Who are the people that run New Orleans’ drainage pump stations, 24 hours a day? We spoke with operators at five different stations and got to know them as individuals. Proud parents and trumpet players, power lifters and auto mechanics, philosophers and rideshare drivers -- they are each striving to make a living and to support their families. As Utility Plant Worker Rob Barrow puts it, working at the Sewerage and Water Board is also “a chance to help the city.”
A few common threads emerged in our conversations.
The first is that the SWBNO provides relatively good employment conditions in a city where so many residents only have access to low-paying service and tourism jobs. Relief Operator Larry Boudreaux describes the importance of the SWBNO to the city’s underserved populations: someone without a high school degree, or with a prior felony conviction, is able to provide for their family if they complete the SWBNO’s training program and dedicate themself to the work.
The second is that the operators see themselves as emergency personnel, their work vital to the safety of their fellow New Orleanians. Of the many sacrifices that operators make, the most significant is that each is asked to leave their families to report to work when tropical storms bear down on the region. As Utility Plant Worker Louis Johnston says, “Family have to be responsible over there, when I have to be here.”