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 -- When it comes to draining New Orleans, there are the parts of the system that are visible for all to see; from curbside catch basins to open canals to the red-brick pump stations.
Just as important are the parts you can't see, including more than 1,200 hundred miles of underground drainage pipes that carry water from the catch basins into the rest of the system.
Just ask the folks who live in the 1500 block of Henry Clay.
“You literally could not get across the street,” said longtime resident Jack Little, past president of the Audubon Area Zoning Association. “I mean, it was inaccessible. And the water would stay there for, literally, days.”
For more than a decade, the city's department of public works cleaned and repaired the catch basins along this street. But even after repairs, the street, a well-used thoroughfare that ends at Children's Hospital would flood, after even a moderate rainstorm.
Little said residents called the city “dozens and dozens and dozens of times.”
“The catch basin would work for a little while, until it got filled back up with water again and there was no flow,” he said. “Second verse, same as the first.”
A map of catch basin complaints to the city’s 311 service hotline is dotted with hundreds of complaints from nearly every neighborhood. The map of complaints since 2012 shows 1,210 closed complaints and 790 open ones.
But closed doesn’t necessarily mean fixed.
A catch basin to nowhere
In the 1500 block of Henry Clay, from St. Charles Avenue to Webster Street, there have been six catch basin complaints since 2012, with five marked as closed. But after each of those first five repairs, the street continued to flood.
“It was complete frustration because nothing was getting done that was meaningful and lasting,” Little said.
The flooding continued because the aging drains pipe below the surface were broken, unable to carry water to the larger drain lines that feed into the canals.
“It’s a frustrating scenario that gets repeated throughout the city, but the residents of Henry Clay decided to do something about it,” Little said.
Brian Kuehne, a retired engineer who lives in the middle of the block, finally determined that – lo and behold – there was no drainage pipe on his stretch of street for the catch basins to drain into. And the nearest drain pipe, on St. Charles Avenue, had collapsed years ago.
He discovered the catch basin-to-nowhere problem when persistent flooding in front of his house led him to contact the city about installing his own catch basin. He got approval from the city, but when he hired a contractor to dig beneath the surface, they discovered there was no lateral pipe. When he checked the city’s ancient subsurface maps, he confirmed it.
“I’m an engineer by training, but it didn’t take an engineer to figure out the problem,” Kuehne said. “It’s just a shame that city wasted so much money sending the same vacuum trucks over and over to clean the catch basins when that wasn’t the issue.”
But determining the problem and fixing it are two different things.
An E-mail chain to nowhere
Once they pinpointed the root cause of the flooding, the Henry Clay residents pressed the city through phone calls, emails and meetings to get a permanent solution.
In March 2015, after yet another failed catch basin cleaning, the group received this email from city outreach manager Cheryn Robles: “We’ll take another look and see if we can resolve this issue for you.”
After more than a year of more calls, emails and meetings, but no action, Kuehne emailed Robles, “No work has been done and the drainage is as bad or worse than ever.”
Robles responded in May 2016, “The DPW is very familiar with the issue and is assembling an estimate to install subsurface drain lines.”
The neighborhood group turned to Councilwoman Susan Guidry’s office, but that led to yet another email chain to nowhere.
In April 2017, Mary Cunningham, Guidry’s director of constituent services, wrote, “The neighborhood is beside themselves with what they perceive as a lack of response.”
After several more months of calls and meetings, the city in June began installing drain lines and eight new catch basins. Today, the work is nearly complete.
But even as they await the final repaving work, Little and his neighbors remain skeptical. They point to a construction notice, referring to future repairs of the collapsed drain line on St. Charles Avenue, an area that has not yet been touched.
“The past history of what we've had to go through just to get the first part done, I can't imagine waiting another seven or eight years,” Little said.
There may be wariness among the Henry Clay property owners, but others suffering from persistent flooding feel only frustration.
In the 6000 block of Colbert Street in Lakeview, Sonny Magner has seen his catch basin cleaned more than a dozen times over the past 20 years.
But when the rain comes to this block, the rain stays.
“They've never corrected it. About 20 years,” Magner said. “It’s frustrating. It’s disgusting. If I wasn't 82-years-old, I would move back to Jefferson Parish.”
Home video from the flooding on Aug. 5 shows a virtual lake rising on Magner’s block. Two weeks later, after virtually no rain, the catch basin was still full of water.