NEW ORLEANS — In part one we took you underground into the St. Louis canal for a new perspective on what’s happening beneath the surface of New Orleans.
We found one lateral line which moves water from the surface into the canal. From what we saw, it was clogged, but not to a degree that would prevent water from getting into the subsurface canal.
The canal is about 9 feet tall and about 28 feet wide. David Capell, an engineer with the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, told us that during a heavy event like the one that we saw on July 10, this entire canal would be completely full of water. It's part of the drainage network of New Orleans, which stretches for a combined 180 miles.
Its importance can't be overstated.
"It's very crucial, obviously, if you can’t get the water to the drainage pump stations, it doesn't matter how many pumps you have working because the water isn't going to get there to get pumped out," Bob Turner, the SW&B’s general superintendent, said.
July 10 was probably the worst flooding many of us have seen in some time, but there’s a difference in the last couple of years. Certain neighborhoods that normally didn't take on much water got swamped.
"One big one happened on Mother’s Day there was significant flooding during that event. Then July 10 was a huge event too when we saw significant flooding. The most I've seen in many years here in the city," Turner said.
After the July flood, the board conducted an after-action review.
“During that after-action review we identified several areas of concern after that July 10 event. One of which is the canal on the other side of old pump station one, the open canal," Turner said.
Turner says they had help in identifying that problem spot.
"On social media we actually found the video that showed the banks of that canal were overflowing,” Turner said. “So, we know there was something strange happening there that's was not a common occurrence years ago.”
So, the board started inspecting the open portion of the canal which is more susceptible to getting clogged than the underground canals.
"When you have an open canal that then goes underground that's where you have the possibility of a lot of debris getting into the underground system because it's exposed," Turner said.
In late August, crews pulled out of the canal a car they say likely dates back to Hurricane Katrina.
"It surprised all of us,” Turner said. “I wouldn't have been all that surprised to find there was some amount of debris there, but to find a car that obviously had been in there for many years and we traced it back to Katrina, it just kind of shows you, it's been a long time since we devoted a lot of time and effort into getting in there and inspecting these canals.”
Along with the car, the inspection found about 22,000 tons of debris in the length of the canal, which stretches about three miles. In September, the board reported that it removed just a fraction of the debris, about 950 tons. Inspecting for and then removing the debris, cost about $575,000.
“I think for years the inspections just fell by the way side,” Turner said. “I can't say for sure why that happened. I think a part of that had to do with the availability of funds and keeping some of those older programs going.”.
Despite the inspections, Turner says crews couldn't pinpoint anything underground that could be directly tied to the increased flooding in certain neighborhoods. They've only scratched the surface though. Many of the canals in New Orleans haven't been inspected in decades. It's estimated that the canal we toured was last checked in 1997.
"In the future what we hope to do is to come through and do a five year where we're inspecting everything," said David Capell, the board engineer who guided us through the St. Louis Canal.
Of course, that will take more money, something the board doesn't have. If crews found 22,000 tons of debris in one canal, we can only imagine what's happening in others.
"We're concerned with the whole network. Of course, when you have flooding that we had over the summer in areas that historically hadn’t flooded, you're wondering, hey what's blocking that water what exactly is keeping the water from the streets to getting into these underground culverts?" H.J. Bosworth said.
Bosworth is a civil engineer and lead researcher for Levees.org, a watch dog group on flood protection. We showed him some of the video we captured underground.
"It's unseen and unknown to everyone else, you all went in there and saw what you saw. I'm glad that you what you saw was fairly clear,” he said. “There are still miles and miles that we would all like to see nice and clean and clear like the images you showed me earlier.”
We asked Bob Turner if the Sewerage and Water Board has the money to inspect the canals on a regular basis.
“Right now, I have some money,” he said. “We're trying to see if we can get additional work done before the end of this year. We have some funds available that would have to be moved out of other areas in order to take care of that.”
It's safe to assume many people wouldn't have confidence in the board moving money or attention out of other areas. From water main breaks and boil water advisories to critical drainage problems, the board has its hands full. Given the multiple meltdowns going back to the Landrieu administration and beyond, the board may have a tough time getting the public to agree to a new proposed stormwater fee to get much needed projects done.
"We know what was going on then (past members of the sewerage and water board) is not something we should really put our trust in. What's going on with the new leadership there and the new administration, just us you're doing a good job and the City of New Orleans may write a fatter check in January," Bosworth said.
"Right now, we're only able to take those baby steps ok, and in the meantime, we're keeping everything going and we're planning for the future,"
Unless that future includes more money, many of these canals, which often go unnoticed, may go unchecked.