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 -- In September 1914, then-New Orleans Mayor Martin Behrman stood before members of the League of American Municipalities in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and regaled them with tales of his city’s magnificent public utilities -- sewerage, water and drainage.
Behrman related how in 1895, in reaction to numerous flood-related yellow fever epidemics and other public health nuisances, New Orleans embarked on an intensive, comprehensive capital improvement plan to bring the city’s drainage system into the 20th century.
“It was evident, therefore,” he told the audience at the LAM convention, “a crisis had been reached in our internal affairs. We realized that we must decide quickly upon the adoption of a policy, either of progress and modernization on the one hand, or content ourselves, on the other, with remaining inert -- satisfied with what we had and the conditions in which we lived, which would have been tantamount to a declaration in favor of retrogression and decay.”
Drainage history: From ideal to inept in 100 years
Now, a shade over a century later, Behrman’s words in Milwaukee echo with an eeriness that further underscores how today’s city leaders -- and, indeed, many of the city administrations since Behrman’s tenure -- have seemingly abandoned the progressive, forward-looking attitude taken by New Orleans regarding drainage at the turn of the century.
In 1914, Behrman had reason to brag -- the Crescent City boasted arguably the world’s most advanced, efficient drainage infrastructure, one that served as a model for other cities not only in the United States, but across the world.
But in 2017, New Orleans’ drainage system has suffered from the exact type of inertia and negligence Behrman denounced a century ago. Today’s drainage system is decaying and decrepit. And WWL-TV’s “Down the Drain” investigation found the flooding this past summer was the direct result of that administrative and public inaction.
If only city leaders and residents had looked at their own history as a guide, they would have found a clear blueprint for staying ahead of these challenges.
The city’s first drainage canal was excavated in 1794, and for the next 100 years or so, city officials took exploratory actions -- mapping and surveying the city, digging canals and ditches, hiring a private firm to handle the process. And when yellow fever outbreaks claimed tens of thousands of lives and floods destroyed miles of property in the late 19th century, they knew something more aggressive had to be done.
In 1888, City Surveyor B.M. Harrod excoriated city leaders for drainage failures and called for gradual but continuous action.
City officials responded in 1893 by creating a Drainage Advisory Board, which devised a comprehensive modernization project. It would be painful, the board said, but urgently needed.
The public grumbled, but city and state officials buckled down. They adopted a millage tax to fund the work in 1899, created the Drainage Commission and the Sewerage and Water Board and then merged the two in 1903.
The project moved quickly and won national praise.
“New Orleans is undergoing an upheaval,” civil engineer Frederick Moore wrote in the December 1901 issue of Scientific American. “... It is a tremendous stride from these [existing] conditions to what promises to be the finest drainage and sewerage system in the world.”
Drainage canals were buttressed and realigned, new canals were excavated, and Albert Baldwin Wood -- a New Orleans native and Tulane graduate -- was recruited by the S&WB as assistant manager of drainage.
The quiet, shy, but brilliant Wood then engineered one of the greatest technological advances of the 20th century -- the Wood screw pump, a massive mechanism that used siphons, propellers and hydraulics to exponentially increase the amount of water the city could pump out. By 1915 the city had ordered 13 screw pumps and installed 11 of them across the city. Wood later improved his design to further boost the system’s capacity.
Roughly 60 years after New Orleans adopted his invention, a June 1974 ceremony dedicated the Wood screw pump at pumping station No. 1 as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
“This pump ... made New Orleans the Mecca for the world’s engineers,” the ceremony program stated.
The government of the Netherlands studied and adopted much of New Orleans’ designs and employed Wood as a consultant to help drain the swampy European country.
New Orleanians were optimistic about their drainage system. Even the devastating May 1927 floods, which ravaged large parts of southeast Louisiana and forced officials to blow up the Mississippi River levees to spare New Orleans, didn’t dampen the mood.
“New Orleans is still the best-drained city in America,” businessman and regional official Abe Britton said in the May 12, 1927, edition of The New Orleans States. The newspaper added that Britton “made it plain ... that he did not mean ... that we should be satisfied as we are. He said the drainage system in New Orleans should be strengthened.”
But for most of the next 90 years, city leaders did not heed Britton’s advice. The ambitious outlook that made New Orleans a model for the world gradually vanished, supplanted by a creeping complacency. The once-revolutionary drainage system aged and decayed, outpaced by technological innovations.
In 1959, officials squabbled about who was at fault for sporadic flooding. The City Council summoned S&WB members to a special meeting and demanded answers. One citizen, in a commentary in The Times-Picayune, blamed elected officials for financial mismanagement and inattention, writing that “it is up to them to determine whether certain other municipal services should have a higher priority than the maintenance and operation of the city’s drainage system.”
More missteps quickly followed. In June 1975, then-S&WB director Stuart Brehm Jr. claimed flooding that year had been an unavoidable act of God.
“A rainfall of that intensity,” Brehm told The Times-Picayune, “is beyond the capability of the drainage system to handle without some street flooding. Actually, the system is designed to remove storm water at the rate of one inch of rainfall per hour for up to three hours.”
In the decades since then, city officials have repeatedly referenced an even slower drainage capacity: an inch in the first hour, and half an inch each hour thereafter.
Huge rainstorms in 1978 and 1983 were also too much for the system to handle, leading to an aggressive campaign in 1985 to impose a drainage fee so the system could make major upgrades.
The S&WB’s water and sewer systems were supported by user fees, but the drainage system relied entirely on millages from a declining tax base and couldn’t afford improvements.
Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial opposed the fee. He wanted fee-averse voters to give him a third term as mayor in the same election. The voters rejected Morial’s third term by a wide margin, but they also narrowly rejected the drainage fee, 54 to 46 percent.
Anne Milling, the S&WB president pro tem who championed the drainage fee effort, blamed politics and a lack of education about how the city paid for its drainage system. Her frustrations boiled up again this year, as she explained in a recent interview with WWL-TV.
“Every time the city is flooded you think, ‘Why couldn’t we get this passed in 1985? We were right on the money on this,’” Milling said.
Squabbles, finger-pointing and buck-passing between various governmental entities also contributed to insufficient service and slapdash maintenance of the drainage system over the decades.
According to a 2002 civil court case, the Sewerage & Water Board and the Streets Department formed an agreement in the late 1980s that made the S&WB responsible for keeping up all drainage pipes wider than 36 inches and put the Streets Department (now part of the Department of Public Works) in charge of all pipes smaller than that, as well as the city’s catch basins.
May 1995 brought another huge rainstorm that overwhelmed the S&WB’s system. And 10 years after that, Hurricane Katrina badly damaged pumps and power generators.
By then, the S&WB was one of the last public utilities in the industrialized world still using an old-fashioned kind of electricity to run its system. Consultants and other experts suggested the S&WB should use federal disaster aid to finally modernize their power and pumping equipment. Instead, the agency has maintained an odd fealty to the old technology, largely deciding to use flexible federal grants to refurbish century-old pumps and generators rather than buy new ones that a WWL-TV investigation found were cheaper and more reliable.
As a result of this corrosive pattern of civil inaction and miscalculation, a once-groundbreaking system’s infrastructure has become a mere husk, a derelict from a glorious past that has long since slipped down the drain.