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.
NEW ORLEANS -- Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Cedric Grant ignited a firestorm of outrage when he said climate change was, in part, to blame for the Aug. 5 flood, especially among those who questioned whether S&WB pumps were even working that day.
An in-depth look at Grant’s travel and calendar revealed a man traveling around the world as a featured speaker at gatherings of climate change experts, even before he started working at the S&WB.
“The frustration is that we're now in a different era. We're in the era of climate change where we have these kind of rains every week or every month,” Grant said at a press conference on Aug. 5 on the steps of City Hall while some residents say the water was still rising in parts of the city.
They were words Grant repeated in media appearances across the city.
“We are now seeing what I believe to be the effects of climate change coming on us where we have these continuing inundations that we all have to just adjust ourselves to how we deal with it now,” he said on WWL-TV’s Eyewitness News at 6 p.m. the night of the flood.
That night, forecasters had predicted scattered rain showers but expected nothing severe. Rain gauges at the S&WB pump stations registered anywhere from 2 to 9.43 inches of rain.
Those numbers exceeded what the public had been told for decades about the amount of rainfall the city’s aging drainage system could handle.
While scientists have said the frequency, intensity and duration of severe weather events have been changing with global warming, most experts have not tied specific events to climate change
And even if climate change contributed to the flooding on Aug. 5 because too much rain fell too fast for the drainage system, people trapped by the flood water began calling in to 911 at 3:17 p.m. asking if the city’s infrastructure had failed.
“Telling New Orleanians who are wet and underwater that because of climate change this is the new normal is completely unacceptable," said New Orleans City Council Member At-large Jason Williams the following day at a press conference announcing that a special council meeting would be held to ask questions about the drainage system.
Cedric Grant's history with climate change advocacy
Grant’s comments come as no surprise given his history with climate change and green infrastructure groups.
In 2010, four years before he got the job as Executive Director of the S&WB, Grant spoke at an international conference on climate change in Rotterdam in the Netherlands.
“In looking toward the future, we must prepare for the unpredictable impact climate change will have on coastal communities like New Orleans,” he said in an interview that was posted to a YouTube channel.
In 2013, he returned to the Netherlands as part of a climate change workshop titled, “Connecting Delta Cities.”
“The system stayed over us and it rained for 50 hours,” Grant told the crowd about Hurricane Isaac as a featured speaker.
Then, in 2014, five months before taking the helm of the utility, Grant spoke at a climate change mayors’ summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“We are all facing very serious challenges in extreme climate shift,” he told that crowd, again, as a featured speaker.
In fact, when the S&WB appointed Grant executive director, he spoke about his work with a climate change advocacy group in his first speech to the board.
“I'm currently the city's point person on C40, I don't know if you know what that is, but it's climate change initiative sponsored by Mayor Bloomberg. It's an international initiative. We are one of the ten founding cities of the C40 initiative on climate change in the Delta cities,” Grant said.
August 5 Flooding in New Orleans
C40 is a Bloomberg-backed, non-profit pushing to stop climate change. The organization falls in the hazy area where advocacy meets lobbying.
Bloomberg and Mayor Mitch Landrieu are cozy, making many well-publicized and well-documented appearances together over the past decade.
C40 is one of the groups tied to climate change that has been flying Grant around the world.
Since 2010, Grant has taken seven trips to other countries, all paid for by green infrastructure and climate change groups. He's flown to the Netherlands, South Africa, Amsterdam, Switzerland, back to the Netherlands and in January of this year, Grant spoke at the C40 conference in Dubai. C40 even tweeted a picture of Grant speaking at the conference, and quoted him as saying, “We must marry the green and the gray."
Grant’s calendar includes dozens of webinars, meetings and of course, the trips with C40.
The group was happy to discuss their work with the city of New Orleans to fight climate change, but when it comes to Grant and the S&WB, "C40 has no comment relating to this agency or individual," Brooke Russell, deputy director of communications & head of C40’s New York Office wrote in an email.
While Grant rose in stature among climate change-related groups, Landrieu pushed to do the same for himself and the city on the national stage.
Disclosure forms filed with the La. Board of Ethics say the U.S. Conference of Mayors sent Landrieu and his wife to Paris for climate change talks in December 2015, and less than a month before the Aug. 5 flood, Landrieu stood on the roof of the S&WB Headquarters on St. Joseph Street in the Warehouse District and announced a plan to reduce emissions and combat climate change.
The city’s climate change was developed using a tool developed by C40 to estimate the impact changes in policy may have on the environment.
Landrieu released that plan a month after his first big move as president of the US Conference of Mayors, blasting President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement to stop climate change.
Even with that national agenda on his agenda, after the Aug. 5 flood, Landrieu said this about Grant’s climate change comments: “I don't agree with that statement. I think that was just kind of just said in the spirit of the moment.”
A man torn between two jobs
A deep dive into Cedric Grant's calendar reveals a man torn between two jobs. He bounced back and forth between his city office on Poydras and his S&WB office on St Joseph street.
He was overseeing the negotiation of a $2 billion-dollar settlement with FEMA to simultaneously repair the minor drainage system and the city’s streets that are notoriously pockmarked with potholes.
At the same time, Grant was tasked with reforming and revamping the S&WB, an agency plagued with problems.
While the opportunity for basic reforms at S&WB abound, Grant seemed to place a high value on the agency’s image rather than initiating sweeping reforms of its inner workings.
While Grant declined to do an interview, a statement crafted by his media representative Morgan Stewart said Grant knew of the agency’s problems, but they’re “… not the kind of work that can be accomplished overnight.”
Stewart touted Grant’s introduction of “modern accountability analytics into S&WB” and his creation of a citywide infrastructure management system to allow multiple agencies to communicate on joint projects.
“The fact that he completed construction of more than $1 billion in facilities and road projects from 2010 to 2017 for the City of New Orleans; and, he successfully negotiated funding for $2 billion from FEMA for road and utility infrastructure repairs and replacements, while managing over 600 S&WB projects, is a testament to what is possible with accomplished, modern and capable management,” Stewart said.
But at the same time, the reforms not made will also be a part of Grant’s legacy, ranging from modernizing employee communication, giving them email addresses, to ending the practice of keeping archaic, hand-written logs for pump station and power operations, not to mention the decision to take a handful of key drainage pumps out of service for maintenance during hurricane season.
During his time at the S&WB, Grant’s calendar and expense receipts show travel to water and infrastructure conferences inside the US and to Washington, D.C. to meet with officials regularly.
He claimed just a handful of sick or vacation days in his three years at the water board.
That unused time netted him a lump-sum payout of $66,557 when he retired under pressure from Landrieu following the Aug. 5 flood.
That's in addition to his $175,000 annual pension.