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Special Report

New Orleans faces massive flooding risks. But City Hall can't keep storm drains clear.

TREME FLOODING_149.JPG

Street flooding in Treme on April 10, 2024.?

Even if City Hall did a perfect job of managing the local drainage system, flooding would always be a peril of living in New Orleans.

But the city’s track record is far from perfect. In fact, local officials have routinely failed to carry out one of their most basic duties when it comes to keeping one of the most vulnerable cities in the world dry.

More than 1,200 miles of drainage pipes snake beneath the ground here. Roughly 72,000 catch basins act as the mouth of the system and capture storm runoff.

Through routine maintenance, the city’s public works department is supposed to keep this “pre-flood” system clear of litter, debris and other blockages so that it can act as an on-ramp for the Sewerage & Water Board’s network of culverts, canals and pump stations — the part of the system that actually removes stormwater.

It’s not getting done.

The problems started three decades ago when, after inheriting maintenance responsibilities for roughly two-thirds of the city’s drainage system, the City Council declined to add any public works staffing or funding to handle that massive influx of work.

The public works department’s stock of frontline maintenance workers has actually dropped by more than 80% since then, records show. New Orleans has fewer even than St. Bernard Parish, despite serving a population eight times as large.

In a 2011 study, consultants found that, in the event of a “10-year” rainstorm, or 8.5 inches of rain over 24 hours, more than 40% of New Orleans would be inundated with standing water of 6 inches to 3 feet.

And that projection assumed that drain lines had zero blockages. If parts were clogged, the flooding would be far worse.

060924 NOLA catch basins chart

For the system to operate effectively, it was determined the city would have to clear roughly 7,000 catch basins a year.

Yet even with $6 million in special funding from the federal government, City Hall averaged around two-thirds of that many annually over the next eight years.

‘Disheartening’ progress

When City Hall hired another group of consultants in 2018, they found that nearly four in 10 catch basins were so blocked by overgrown grass, street litter or storm debris that they were basically useless.

Meanwhile, homeowners in vulnerable neighborhoods from Little Woods to Lakeview to Treme have said they’re routinely dealing with flooding that’s as bad as they’ve seen since Hurricane Katrina.

After officials encouraged residents in Pigeon Town to alert them when a catch basin needed cleaning, Emily Dux, a 40-year-old IT manager, filed complaints on 18 that she photographed and said were stuffed with litter or choked with overgrown grass.

More than three months later, none of the 18 basins Dux complained about have been cleared. With data showing a backlog of roughly 3,000 complaints like Dux’s that are still pending, a top city administrator recently asked residents to stop filing complaints and contact their local council representatives instead.

“It’s disheartening,” Dux said. “You’re told there’s money being spent on this and you don’t actually see anything happening.”

Distinct disadvantages

To be sure, as a relatively old, low-lying city, New Orleans is saddled with plenty of distinct disadvantages.

About a third of the city’s drainage pipes are so old they were installed with a diameter of less than 15 inches, which wouldn’t meet today’s minimum standards.

The soil in nearly half of the city is also at high risk of subsiding, according to a 2011 study. When soil moves, so do pipes, causing cracks, leaks and other problems.

To raise money to address the problems, outside consultants have reached the same conclusion: Fall in line with other cities by charging New Orleans property owners a drainage fee.

A group hired by the S&WB in 2016 proposed a fee structure that factors in a property’s size and how well it manages stormwater runoff. It’s gone nowhere since.

Backsliding badly

The city ramped up its catch-basin cleanup in the last full year under Mayor Mitch Landrieu, clearing more than 19,000 basins in 2017. But, as public works directors have cycled in and out of a depleted department, the city backslid badly under Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

TREME FLOODING_147.JPG

Street flooding in Treme on April 10, 2024.?

At the rate the city was clearing catch basins in 2023, clearing them all would take 57 years. That was despite $10 million in federal pandemic relief earmarked specifically for catch basin maintenance, not a dollar of which was spent until this spring.

Cantrell, who famously dubbed New Orleans a "city that floods" shortly after she took office in 2018, declined numerous requests for an interview. Her new public works director, Clinton “Rick” Hathaway, said the city has used the influx of money to hire contractors who work daily to clear catch basins.

Hathaway has committed to adding 16 maintenance workers, which would grow the frontline staff by about 60%.

That would still be fewer than one-fifth the amount Jefferson Parish employs.

Investigative reporting is more essential than ever, which is why we’ve established the?Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund,?a non-profit supported by our readers.

To learn more,?please click here.

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