Community rises up to stop New Orleans from drowning
Situation recalls trauma of Hurricane Katrina
By C.C. Campbell-Rock
Trice Edney News Wire
Community activists by the hundreds have stood toe to toe with New Orleans’ city officials and said no to unnecessary flooding caused by the embattled Sewerage & Water Board’s failure to maintain the pumps and drainage system. Members of the New Orleans People’s Assembly and Justice & Beyond have held press conferences and gone to court to demand reform of the Sewerage & Water Board.
In less than a year, citizens have endured several street flooding events from heavy rainstorms, including those on July 22, Aug. 5, and Oct. 2. The August flood caused damage to hundreds of properties and dumped two to three feet of water on the streets of New Orleans. The incidents brought back the anxiety and post-traumatic stress residents experienced as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
S&WB officials said publicly that the pumps were working, claims that later proved to be untrue. City officials also grilled the executives on the whereabouts of $2 billion received for improvements to the water system.
After the August flood, Landrieu, who as mayor serves as president of the Sewerage & Water Board, requested the resignations of four top officials, including the director and the top engineer at the municipal water utility. He then appointed an interim emergency management team, whose tenure is up on Nov. 30. Two weeks later, Landrieu’s administration launched a website, “Streetwise” that tracks traffic problems and street flooding incidents in real time.
WDSU TV recently reported that the city of New Orleans has spent more than $50 million on Sewerage and Water Board issues since August, including $41 million on power, $235,000 on water pumps, more than $6 million on drainage pumps and more than $6 million in manpower.
In an Oct. 16 lawsuit, the People’s Assembly, Sixth Union Baptist Church, Antranette Scott and Latasia Williams vs Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans and City of New Orleans, the plaintiffs allege that the City and the S&WB violated citizens’ due process rights by not providing full public notice of serious and ongoing problems with the drainage system in New Orleans. “As a result of a lack of transparency and notice, petitioners have been damaged by the loss of automobiles, homes, work opportunities, and other things, which could have been prevented altogether or at least minimized,” according to the petition.
“This case is about improving the system for our clients and the people of New Orleans who live in fear of flooding because of the pump and drainage issues. We are asking for due process, which requires that the government give the public adequate and timely notice when public utility services are shut off and not working. The public drainage system in New Orleans is broken. The lawsuit asks for up-to-date and accurate information about operations and spending and we are asking the court to give the oversight that is badly needed,” says Davida Finger, clinical law professor at Loyola University Law School.
“Our lawsuit absolutely should go forward in court. The Sewerage and Water Board has many broken parts. The people of New Orleans deserve full accountability and the kind of oversight that a court can give,” Finger said.
At a special Nov. 7, City Council meeting, the interim emergency management team appointed by Landrieu, and the S&WB faced the ire of City Council members and the public, who took them to task over a double-billing scandal, an alleged privatization scheme, and the multimillion-dollar bill for emergency work. The board blamed a computer error for more than 9,000 residents being overbilled. According to S&WB, 4,000 erroneous bills have been fixed and more than 5,800 are still under review.
The next day, the City of New Orleans filed a memorandum in Civil District Court asking that the city be removed from the community groups’ lawsuit. The City Attorney argued that the S&WB is an independent entity and that the city is not responsible for the maintenance and operations of the agency. “All I want to do is—I want to keep the toilets flushing; I want to keep water running; I want to make sure people are protected during an event here,” Paul Rainwater, chair of the interim emergency management team said.
Nonetheless, on Nov. 16, social justice groups and citizens formed a new coalition, The Sewerage & Water Board Fight Back Coalition, to present Mayor Mitch Landrieu with a list of demands regarding the Sewerage & Water Board:
• Immediately stop cutting off people’s water when bills are disputed. Restore water service to all people and leveled bills based on average use in 2015.
• Reimburse people for overages; hire New Orleanians to clean catch basis and to fill vacancies at Sewerage and Water Board. Promote from within. Support unionization.
• Cancel the contract with the outside law firm to fight people who have legitimate claims against the city, instead of just reimbursing the people for damages caused by the Sewerage and Water Board. Invest the money in ways that actually helps the people.
• Start a people’s oversight committee to oversee the reconstruction of the Sewerage and Water Board-no more blue ribbon commissions of appointees, no privatization!
• Pay reparations for damages caused to residents due to floods caused by the City’s negligence.
At press time, former mayoral candidate Desiree Charbonnet spoke to The Louisiana Weekly about her positions on the Sewerage & Water Board. Councilperson and newly-elected Mayor LaToya Cantrell couldn’t respond directly due to the City Council meeting but she sent comments and The Louisiana Weekly spoke to Cantrell’s spokesperson, David Winkler-Schmit.
Both said they are against privatization and want to see massive improvements in the way S&WB operates.
“I’m definitely not for privatization,” Charbonnet said. Not one for making rash decisions, she adds, “I will review all S&WB reports, create an advisory board that includes citizens, hire licensed professionals, “who know what they’re doing” and appoint a separate director of Public Works, among other tasks.
“It’s a mess. It’s evident they don’t have a grip on operations,” says Charbonnet, of the S&WB; adding there will be no old political hook-ups at S&WB.
“I don’t know if they even read the meters, anymore, or when they clean the drains. That the city floods because of hard rains is ridiculous,” she said. “The city approved of 3,500 drains to be cleaned in 2017. There are 65,000 drains in New Orleans. It’s one thing for residents to clean the drains near their homes but we need trained people to clean out the debris, dirt, tree branches that clog the drains. We’ve got an opportunity for positive change in reforming the Sewerage & Water Board.
“Three hundred jobs have yet to be filled. People talk about Black males being unemployed, they surely can be trained to fill many of those positions. There was a time when if you worked for city government, you had a good job. The city used to be a good place in which to work. Let’s make it a good thing, again,” Charbonnet said.
“We need to improve communications between the Department of Public Works, S&WB and the Corps of Engineers, so that each entity is aware what the other entities are doing, especially during large scale rain events. Better coordination will also eliminate duplication of efforts and prevent a street from being fixed one week and then torn up the next week by another city department,” said Cantrell. “We also need a water expert, someone who has expertise in storm water management.”
Cantrell said she will immediately invest in improving the current system. “We should begin to grow our Department of Public Works, as well as our Sanitation, and Parks and Parkways departments. These departments provide necessary maintenance to our landscape and infrastructure, and a properly functioning pump system is useless without clean, properly functioning storm drains.’
Cantrell will also work with the Sheriff’s Office’s work release program. “Inmates have already applied and been screened by the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, so this would be a voluntary effort, but with assistance from the City and agreement with the Sheriff this could make a difference in cleaning clogged drains and performing minor repairs.”
“Councilwoman Cantrell facilitated a cleaning program partnership with the Traffic Court, Municipal Court and the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office where in lieu of fines, people could volunteer to clean up areas of the city. These volunteers could be used to clean catch basins,” saidWinkler-Schmit.