Down the Drain is a WWL-TV investigative project that explores what went wrong and where the blame lies for New Orleans' drainage crisis. Down the Drain was reported and produced by WWL-TV's investigative team: Katie Moore, David Hammer, Mike Perlstein, TJ Pipitone and Danny Monteverde. Infographics and multimedia design by Sam Winstrom and Kevin Dupuy.
When Costco opened in New Orleans in the fall of 2013, the development was praised by city leaders, including then-Deputy Mayor Cedric Grant.
“Being able to do sidewalks, and handicapped ramps, and traffic signals, that improves how this whole neighborhood works,” Grant said from the parking lot of the big box wholesaler at the grand opening.
Nine months later, Grant would wear another hat for the city, director of the Sewerage & Water Board. Ousted from that position in August after rains flooded the city over the summer, Grant might have a different opinion of Costco today.
Building for the future
The major retailer taking up several city blocks along South Carrollton Avenue was allowed to build without any so-called “green infrastructure:” no permeable pavement, no rain receptacles, very little green space.
Those environmentally-friendly features, which help soak up and store rainwater, are quickly becoming requirements of modern urban planning.
Another administration official at that time, former Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, looks back at the Costco development – and the lucrative incentives the city paid out to land it – and sees an opportunity missed.
“I've said that myself, that one of my greatest regrets was we didn't know enough about pervious pavement to add that to the cost,” Kopplin said. “The city gave an incentive to Costco, and for a few hundred thousand dollars more, I suspect, we could have given a bigger incentive and required them to use pervious pavement.”
Kopplin should know the benefits of that type of pavement.
As the director of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, Kopplin proudly shows off the rain-absorbing permeable asphalt, cisterns and rain gardens around his organization's headquarters on Howard Avenue at Lee Circle.
“During the heavy rains earlier, that pavement looked exactly like it does right now. It drank all the water as quickly as it rained,” Kopplin said, pointing to his dry parking lot on a day when torrential rains flooded some streets during a September storm.
Experts praise the Greater New Orleans Foundation project, but see it as a proverbial drop in the bucket. To keep New Orleans from persistent flooding, they say green infrastructure is needed on a much larger scale.
“The best thing to do is to catch the water in the landscape,” said New Orleans architect David Waggoner, whose firm, Waggoner & Ball whose firm designed the GNOF's green-friendly building and landscaping.
“When the (drainage) system was conceived in the 1920s, it wasn’t the same city that it is today,” Waggoner said. “We got into a world where we thought we could engineer our way through it.”
Waggoner is perhaps the city’s the biggest believer in taking green infrastructure to a higher level. In November 2013, his firm published the “Urban Water Plan,” a blueprint for developing water-retaining, flood-reducing features throughout the metro area.
The project stemmed from a series of high-level brainstorming sessions with global leaders in green infrastructure, including officials from the Netherlands, a once flood-prone country that has solved many of its problems by incorporating water into city landscapes.
“The motivation we've had is unless we get on to the next city, unless we get on to this water city, we may not have a city,” Waggoner said.
Waggoner and other experts say the New Orleans can no longer rely exclusively on the drain-and-pump method of handling storm water.
“The drainage system that was designed more than 100 years ago, that we've been building and expanding, is overburdened by these heavy rain events,” said Ramiro Diaz, an architectural planner with Waggonner & Ball.
The city’s massive and expensive drainage system is not only outdated and overmatched, Diaz said, it makes matters worse by accelerating subsidence. When rain is not allowed to seep underground, the ground sinks, like a dried-out sponge.
“The mindset that's driven the city and has been driving the politicians has been pumping,” Waggoner said. “Every drop of water here we have to pump out. That's stupid.”
The Urban Water Plan turns the drain-and-pump method upside down, advocating a catch-and-store philosophy instead. The plan includes blueprints for rain gardens, water parks, blueways, bioswales and other methods to safely retain rainwater.
New Orleans has taken steps to embrace the concept of green infrastructure. A 2015 amendment to the city’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance requires storm water management for new commercial property.
Had the requirement been approved a few years earlier, developments like Costco would have been required to build features to absorb the first inch-and-a-quarter of rainfall during storms.
“We are at our limit. And so we have to have somewhere else for the water to go,” New Orleans Deputy Mayor Jeff Hebert said in a recent interview.
The federal government has tried to help, but projects in New Orleans have barely budged. An earlier Down the Drain investigation exposed that almost none of the Housing and Urban Development grant money awarded for green infrastructure, $140 million been spent giving the city the dubious label of “slow spender.”
The urgency is not lost on ordinary citizens.
At the emergency city council meeting on Aug. 8, three days after heavy rains left neighborhoods flooded and residents furious, a handful of the speakers urged a smarter approach to drainage.
“We have an urban water plan in this city and I haven't heard a mention of it,” one speaker said.
“Drainage causes subsidence, which actually lowers our whole city,” another speaker pointed out.
Others suggested that citizens take it on themselves to adopt new approaches and not wait for city government. “A rain barrel costs maybe $60,” one man said, suggesting that homeowners could incorporate the receptacles to their roofs and storm gutters.
“We need to talk about green infrastructure. Because that would change the consciousness of New Orleans,” a woman at the meeting added.
Waggoner and other experts praise the grass roots efforts, but warn that time is not on the city's side for turning ideas into reality.
“I think New Orleans believes it has more time than we may be given,” Waggoner said. “We don't. We don't have decades to get this together.”
To watch the full Down the Drain special click here.