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 -- The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club is one of the great New Orleans institutions. Its headquarters has stood at Orleans and Broad for 45 years.
But with Carnival season around the corner, Zulu member are still cleaning and repairing their den after flooding twice during the summer, first with the rains on July 22, then even worse on Aug. 5.
“This is unacceptable. This is unacceptable on every level,” Zulu President Naaman Stewart told the City Council three days after the August flood. Stewart was just the first of dozens of speakers to blast the Sewerage & Water Board at the marathon council session.
In a booming voice full of controlled indignation, Stewart highlighted the stress and hardship reverberating throughout the city.
“People have made significant investment in this community, by way of their homes, by way of their children, by way of their jobs. We can't continue to live and be concerned about whether or not our properties are going to flood if it rains hard.”
The Zulu den is just blocks from Drainage Pump Station No. 2, one of the oldest and most critical in the city. The Broad Street Theater sits virtually across the street.
“For the Broad Street Theater and all the businesses along Broad Street, the Orleans Avenue corridor, to flood in the way that it did, there's no excuse for that,” Stewart said. “It's like living across the street from the fire station and your house burns down.”
Stewart said he strived to be a voice for others in venting his frustration to city leaders. But he hardly needed to serve as a proxy for the city’s outrage. Following Stewart’s address, a parade of citizens stepped up to the council podium to voice their concerns. Here’s a sample:
Antonia Martinez, 6th Ward: “I used to live in the city that care forgot. Now I'm in the city that just forgot to care.”
Angelina Elder, 7th Ward: “When I stepped in my den, the water came to my calf.”
Belden Batiste, 6th Ward: “Y'all should be held accountable, too. These people could have died in the water.”
Hillary Barq, Bayou St. John: “We literally saved someone in their basement. ... He was in a walker, y'all.”
Paula Pete, Claiborne business owner: “Never seen that amount of water coming into Treme.”
Janet Hays, Mid-City: “I shouldn't have to make major life-changing decisions every time I see a cloud.”
Carl Degel, Lakeview-West End: “To say those pumps were on and working is an absolute falsehood.”
Stacie Daley, Fairgrounds: “Where is our mayor? Where is our leader?”
Margaret Thomas, Treme business owner: “If I mess up as bad as what I'm hearing here, I would not have my job.”
Dr. Markalain Dery, physician: “My HIV clinic and the Fertel clinic are now indefinitely closed.”
Naydja CoJoe, Gentilly: “Stop playing with people's lives.”
The outrage that erupted in the wake of the flooding has yet to subside. More problems at the Sewerage & Water Board – from pumps to power to manpower – are being exposed on almost a weekly basis, many as part of WWL-TV’s ongoing coverage called Down The Drain.
Even today, residents and business owners continue to rebuild after being flooded, keeping a wary on the city’s difficulties fixing the deeply-rooted problems.
“We had, like, four feet of water in here -- three, four feet of water in this place,” Zulu historian Clarence Becknell said during a recent tour of the organization’s den. “And it hurts us because we're a Mardi Gras organization and this is the time when we prepare for Mardi Gras.”
Becknell points to ongoing repairs to the main lounge, knowing the club is in a race against the clock to prepare for Mardi Gras.
He recalled how members worked frantically as the floodwaters rose, saving framed photos of the club's past presidents. But so much else, from beads to bar stools to liquor, was lost.
"I know we have to do it ourselves"
Just blocks away, the Broad Street Theater is within a stone’s throw of the massive pump station that dominates an entire block along the neutral ground.
But that massive piece of infrastructure, the second-oldest pump station in the city, seemed to do little to keep Brian Knighten's theater from flooding and going dark for a week.
“I'm going through my SBA disaster relief application process and in an initial meeting I had, they said the economic impact, the economic loss, was close to $300,000,” Knighten said.
At the time of the August flood, the four-screen theater was still recovering from the July 22 inundation, which only closed the business for a day, but it would have been the box office day of the year.
“It was the opening night for the movie 'Girls Trip,' and we had one of the actors buy out two shows,” Knighten said.
Knighten is now taking some of his own flood protection measures, installing water-proof baseboards and sheetrock, erecting flood-gates at the theater’s entrance, and raising everything possible above ground level.
“I know we have to do it ourselves,” he said. “Even if we’re right next to the pump, it doesn’t mean we’re going to get water out quick enough."
Knighten said he is biting the bullet to make his own repairs this time. The next time the city floods, he’s not so sure. Waving his arm at the expanse of businesses on his block, he questions who would be willing to rebuild again.
“If we continue to allow this to happen, these businesses are going to shut down,” he said. “It seems like if you can’t keep the water out of the city, then you don’t have a city.”
A couple of blocks away at the Exclusive Barber Shop and Salon, owner Kevin Banks echoed Knighten’s sentiments. Banks said he was able to replace the three feet of sheetrock in his shop, but a newly painted mural was lost forever.
“You see we lost that,” Banks said. “It was like a small Katrina. I had the same disaster as Katrina.”
Despite having flood insurance, Banks said the flood has been costly.
“We're going to come out of our pocket with about $7,000,” he said.
The cost to the community was even greater, he said. For weeks, this barbershop was not available to serve its role as a traditional neighborhood gathering spot.
The Aug. 5 flood closed the shop just days before Banks had scheduled a “donation day” for community members to bring supplies to send to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
“It took our gathering place from us,” Banks said. “It was our own mini-disaster.”
To watch the full Down the Drain special click here.