KENNER - Mounds of excess dirt from New Orleans’ $1 billion airport terminal construction project was dumped in vacant lots in Kenner’s Highway Park neighborhood this spring, and some residents say that caused drainage problems that left their homes flooded by Saturday’s record downpour.
“I was hoping that they were going to do something with the (dirt dumped in the) field, and maybe build something,” said Cherie Guggenheim, who is moving out of the house she’s rented on Connecticut Avenue for the last three years. “But it hadn’t moved and then when more rain came, it kept sliding. And it wasn’t until Saturday with the flooding that I realized the problem that it had caused.”
The fill was taken from the north side of Louis Armstrong International Airport, where a new terminal is being built to replace the old one on the south side, and dumped on various privately owned lots in Kenner this spring.
The fill was not leveled as required by Kenner city permits and it completely covered the nine storm drains along the west side of the 2100 block of Connecticut Avenue, across from Guggenheim and other residents who share her anger and frustration.
Earl Arnouville, who built his home on the west side of Connecticut Avenue 58 years ago said he’d never seen flooding like he did on Saturday, and he attributes it to the piles of clay in the field across the street.
“Nothing will soak in. It’s like a lake,” he said, pointing at a pond that developed in the middle of the block last week and now provides a home for a family of ducks.
“Just like if you have a slab of concrete. It’s just going to wash right here,” he added, sweeping his arms from the dirt pile toward his house on the other side of the street.
But city of Kenner officials argue that the fill is not the reason some homes flooded in subdivisions east and south of the airport property.
Jerry Hollis’ house, two doors down from Guggenheim’s, sits 9 inches below the crown of the street. The house has a flood barrier around the perimeter, and Kenner Code Enforcement Director Richard Walther says sandbags have been deployed in the past to keep water from going in under the front door.
Hollis acknowledged his home has flooded before, but said never with as much water nor as suddenly as Saturday.
“I said, man, I hear it raining, and when I opened that front door, it came in, man,” Hollis said. “Nothing I could do.”
Now, he says he’ll have to replace his floors because they are warping and water-logged.
Some of the homes – including Hollis’ -- are more than 2 feet below the area base flood elevation, but FEMA still rates the area Zone X, which is outside the 500-year flood plain, so few property owners carry any flood insurance.
Walther said he feels for the victims, but believes their own failure to clean storm drains on their side had more to do with their fate than the dirt piles on the other side. He said his crews found the drainage pipes on the west side of Connecticut Avenue – where the empty lots were covered with the dirt from the airport – were flowing well during Tropical Storm Cindy, while the pipes running along the east side – the side with the houses – was down to a trickle where it empties into the West Metairie Canal, three blocks to the south.
“They found the storm-water drains (on the side with the houses) were covered with debris and dirt,” Walther said.
Guggenheim said she cleaned her storm drains before Saturday’s rainfall. The debris found by city officials accumulated during the flooding, she said. Other residents said they asked city officials in a meeting held the day before Cindy made landfall, to clear the drains buried under the airport dirt, but that was not done.
City officials said Jefferson Parish is responsible for maintaining drainage. But after the residents’ persistent complaints and shortly after WWL-TV showed up asking questions Wednesday, Kenner sent crews to Connecticut Avenue to excavate the buried storm drains and pump out the drainage pipe below.
What’s more, Kenner issued a summons Wednesday to Luis Laitano for failing to level the fill on the lots across from Arnouville’s house. Laitano is owner of Gol Station, a company that Arnouville said had announced a plan to build soccer fields on the vacant property. Messages left for Laitano at the phone number listed on his permit application were not returned.
Laitano’s permit application, which was provided to WWL-TV by Kenner officials, was never approved. And the city said it could not find any permits or applications for the property that sits across from Guggenheim and Hollis, which also had mounds of unleveled fill covering the storm drains.
The City of New Orleans, which owns the airport, said it played no role in deciding where the fill would go once it was taken off-site. The airport confirmed the fill was donated to nearby property owners and hauled to their lots by a subcontractor, Kolb Grading, which works under the main contractor, a joint venture of local construction giants Hunt, Gibbs, Boh and Metro.
WWL-TV spoke to the Kolb Grading representative listed as the contact for property owners who want the dirt delivered to them, but he declined to answer questions or provide any further information.