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Special Report

His job helps keep New Orleans streets from flooding. There are few like him left.

When Jerome Casby joined the public works department in the 1980s, there were more than 400 maintenance workers. Now there’s fewer than 30.

Jerome Casby stands over the open cover of a catch basin, shovel in hand.

He digs at a mound of dark muck — storm runoff, dead leaves, street litter — that’s piled from the bottom of the basin almost all the way up to its mouth on St. Peter Street.

As Casby scoops the debris into a pile so it can be sucked out by a vacuum truck owned by the city of New Orleans, the blade of his shovel clanks against something hard.

“Tree root,” Casby yells over the roar coming from the vacuum’s massive nozzle. He points at a live oak looming in Congo Square.

By the time he and a city crew are done clearing the basin, an onlooker can see a few feet down, all the way to the bottom. And one can see how the city’s drainage system is supposed to work.

Some 72,000 catch basins that line New Orleans’ streets, when they’re not clogged, are the city’s first line of defense against flooding. And in one of the most vulnerable cities in the world, there are few jobs here more important than keeping them clear.

It’s work that requires manpower, usually three to four to a crew. Two operate the equipment and at least one person for the manual labor that Casby was doing on a recent afternoon.

060924 NOLA Public Works bar chart

The problem for New Orleans is: There’s not many employees like Casby left.

An Algiers native, Casby, 58, joined the public works department in the late 1980s, when its maintenance yard on Norman C. Francis Parkway — then named for Confederate president Jefferson Davis — had more than 400 employees like him.

Today there are fewer than 30.

The city used to have its own rock crusher that ground asphalt that an army of frontline workers used to patch roadways. Now the city is down to just one pothole crew.

Because of the lack of staff, the city can only operate three of its four vacuum trucks full-time. In a good month, the in-house crews can only clear around two-thirds of the amount of catch basins needed to meet a benchmark previously set by the city.

“They just started cutting back,” Casby said about the late 1990s, when the city began outsourcing a lot of its work. “And everyone started moving out.”

Needed increases

Public Works Director Clinton “Rick” Hathaway, who took the job in December, said he’s focused on reversing that trend. The department’s number of frontline workers should be about 10 times what it is, Hathaway said.

That would bring New Orleans more in line with its peers, and hark back to the department’s heyday.

“We were all doing stuff like this,” Casby said, as his crew vacuumed more sludge from two manholes covering a stretch of drain line.

Drains can get clogged like this from the runoff of just a couple of bad storms, Casby said, or a weekend of Carnival parades.

Getting a flow

While clearing catch basins, Casby has found countless Mardi Gras beads, beer cans, animals like cats or opossums and — on more than one occasion — guns, which have to be turned into the police department, he said.

This afternoon, it takes about an hour for Casby’s crew to finish their work.

Before they started, water could barely trickle through the thick muck. When they’re done, they flush the drain with a hose they unspooled from the vacuum truck. The water blasts out of the manhole on North Rampart Street, a geyser of dark runoff.

A good sign, Casby said. “Then I know I’ve got a flow.”

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.

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