New Orleans: Ready Or Not? Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands

Jul 13, 2018

 

New Orleans is a city that floods. Even a small storm can leave streets impassable. City officials say they’re working on solutions, but they’re also asking citizens to help out.

All this week we’ve aired stories about how prepared the city is for the threats that climate change will bring — heavier rains, bigger storms, extreme temperatures — and there are some serious doubts. That’s why some people are taking matters into their own hands.


 

On a Saturday morning in mid-April, the sky is dark and the winds are picking up. A storm is approaching, but Graeme Preston is out on his street shoveling leaves and rocks — debris that can block up the catch basins on the curb and prevent water from draining properly.

 

“On a street like this with all the oak trees, the leaves just pile up, you know, every week,” Preston explains.

"The city can't do everything, even though they really should." - Graeme Preston

Preston lives on North Dorgenois in the Seventh Ward. Last August, when a torrential downpour flooded much of the city, he ended up having to walk through waist-deep water to get home from work. He says his street didn’t flood that day, but ever since then, he’s been extra diligent about cleaning the catch basins.

After the Aug. 5 flood, the city made some big changes. Leaders were replaced at the Sewerage and Water Board — the utility in charge of the pumps and drainage canals that are supposed to keep the city dry.

The city also issued emergency contracts to clean out thousands of catch basins. The city says it’s cleaned about 25,000 catch basins since last August — about a third of the 68,000 total.

Officials also asked residents to pitch in.

“The city can't do everything even though they really should,” says Preston. “But you know, we try to come out here and do what we can.”

Preston isn’t alone. There are a bunch of local nonprofits helping people solve drainage problems.

With shovels and rakes, a small construction team is flattening out a patch of dirt in the front yard of a double shotgun in Central City. Felice Lavergne says most of the yard was concrete before, but the new landlord wanted it torn up.

“They're going to be putting in rain gardens,” says Lavergne says, full of “beautiful cypress trees.”

Those cypress trees will suck thousands of gallons of rainwater from the soil.

Lavergne runs the Front Yard Initiative at the Urban Conservancy, which helps people rip up concrete in their yards and replace it with stuff that absorbs rain, like gardens and ditches specially designed to hold lots of water.

Concrete patches were replaced with porous surfaces and rain gardens at this house in Central City.
Credit Michael Isaac Stein

“The team did the calculations,” Lavergne says, and the changes they’re making will catch “all the water that comes off of the roof for the first inch and a quarter of a rain event.”

According to the National Weather Service, that’s about what an average summer rainstorm is capable of dropping. And that’s water that won’t end up in the street, where it would flow into catch basins and need to be pumped out of the city.

The city of New Orleans has started to do these types of projects on a bigger scale, but the work has taken many years and lots of outside money — like grants from the federal government. Mayor LaToya Cantrell is eager to keep those projects moving, but also wants to see residents do more projects on their own.

“Because you will really see the difference immediately,” Cantrell says. “It's not one of those things you have to wait for years to see.”

"We're behind. But we can catch up." - Dana Brown

How big of a difference? Landscape architect Dana Brown has done a bunch of calculations to figure that out. She says if just 10 percent of residents installed serious green infrastructure projects on their properties, the difference would be noticable. That would be enough to absorb the first third of an inch of rain.

“That's a lot,” says Brown. She says that could reduce street flooding.

 

Given the storms we’ve seen here lately, and the heavier rains scientists expect in the future, Brown says we’re not moving fast enough.

“We’re behind. But we can catch up, and everybody can do something.”

 

Until then, living here probably means getting a little wet.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Foundation for Louisiana.