Aviva Shen is a journalist in New Orleans. She was previously a senior editor at Think Progress, and has written for The Guardian, Smithsonian, and other outlets.
New Orleans’ water infrastructure needs a lot of work. In the meantime, some residents are taking a new street-level approach to dealing with a deluge.
For years, the sound of rain on the roof of their New Orleans home filled Becky Lloyd and Christopher Renz with dread. Sometimes they’d need to get up in the middle of the night to move their car to higher ground. After a heavy rain, they would lay planks of wood to bridge the eight or nine inches of water that would appear between their driveway and their front door.
“I wouldn’t be able to park or walk to the house without being in water,” Lloyd recalls.
That anxiety stalks many New Orleanians. This August, a freak rainstorm flooded some neighborhoods to levels not seen since Hurricane Katrina, a reminder of the mayhem water can inflict on a bowl-shaped city that lies below sea level. The water level shut down several roads and highway exits for more than 24 hours, prompting many people to abandon flooded cars and try to wade home. Hundreds of residents filed damage claims in the following week. Businesses reported thousands of dollars’ worth of damaged goods.
But Lloyd and Renz’s home was unscathed by the August storm. That’s because a year and a half ago, weary of the constant flooding, they drastically overhauled their front yard with guidance from the Urban Conservancy, a local nonprofit that helps homeowners manage water sustainably through their Front Yard Initiative.
The couple discovered they were the lowest point in a three-block radius. All of the rain that landed in their neighbors’ yards would quickly rush into theirs, turning their front yard into a mud pit. The problem got worse when their nextdoor neighbors elevated their yard ten inches, presumably to reduce flooding on their own land. Before connecting with the Urban Conservancy, Lloyd and Renz considered raising their driveway, too, “which would have just pushed the problem down the street,” Lloyd says.
Now, their front yard features permeable, crushed-gravel walkways that wind through native plants and trees that help suck up water. A natural bog filled with water-loving plants like royal ferns and irises becomes a temporary pond during rainy stretches. Because they’re taking on so much of their neighbors’ runoff, their new gravel driveway doubles as a 3-foot-deep reservoir. They also replaced the sidewalk in front of their home with permeable pavement.
The pavement problem
The Urban Conservancy’s Front Yard Initiative is a small but increasingly popular program that reimburses homeowners who replace concrete on their property with permeable materials that will absorb or store water before it hits the street.
The initiative is part of a broader effort to shift the way New Orleanians think about stormwater, explained Project Manager Felice Lavergne.
New Orleans’ famous water-management problems are due, in part, to the city’s overreliance on a 19th-century pumping system that constantly sucks water out of the ground and pushes it into Lake Pontchartrain to the north. After the surprise flood, outrage erupted over the discovery that fourteen pumping stations had been offline. Sewerage and Water Board head Cedric Grant promptly resigned amid the political furor. But while the conversation about the flood has focused on the failure of the pumps, the problem starts before the water even hits the street.
“We need to slow it down, spread it out, absorb it into the ground, and the pumps should be our last line of defense,” says Lavergne.
In any iteration, the project is driven by one philosophy: You need to own your water.
Even just removing a driveway can be significant, says Lloyd—the difference between flooding the street and draining on the residents’ own property. Vast swaths of the city are covered in impervious pavement, both on public and private property. Landlords and homeowners tend to pave yards to create more parking spots or to eliminate lawn maintenance. Technically, the city bans paving more than 40 percent of a lot, but the rule is rarely enforced. Few homeowners even know it’s on the books until they’ve already poured the concrete.
“All the paved surfaces make the water just run off into the street and our pumping system can only handle so much water per hour,” says Lavergne. “And the less water we shunt into the street the better.”
“The raindrop is our foe”
Climate change all but guarantees New Orleans will see more severe storms and heavier rainfall in the future. The warming Gulf of Mexico will send more moisture into the atmosphere, which will become capable of holding more volume. Already, heavy rainfall events have increased by 62 percent since the 1950s.
Unfortunately, New Orleans has barely updated its water management infrastructure since that era. As its pumps and pipes age, the city is becoming more vulnerable to even routine rainstorms, warns Jeffrey Thomas, an attorney and environmental policy consultant. Thomas has been involved in the city’s stormwater management policy since Hurricane Katrina.
“The August 5 flood, in some areas, created flooding comparable to Katrina. It was shocking to the senses for a lot of us,” he says. “But more often than that, it’s 3 feet of standing water. Three feet is your car. It’s your business.”
Most of the damage from Katrina was caused by storm surge from the lake that overtopped canals and burst through weak levees. After that storm, the city strengthened its defenses against another storm surge. But, Thomas says, those protections will mean little if the city is still overwhelmed by rainfall within that fortified perimeter.
“This idea that the raindrop is our foe in New Orleans a lot of times is something we have to start incorporating into our reality,” he says.
Thomas organized a citizen task force to study the failures of the city’s drainage system and released a report in 2012. The task force found that, while the pumps at the back-end of the system were certainly ancient, the crucial breakdowns were happening at the street level.
“Neighborhood flooding is exacerbated when pipe breakages pair with catch basins clogged by excessive runoff from impervious properties, curbs, and streets,” the report says. Meanwhile, the pumps suck water from the ground even when it’s not flooding, leading the ground to contract like a dry sponge. As this happens, the report continues, “pipes break, and runoff accelerates, pumping stormwater become more expensive, requiring ever more power and maintenance to take on gravity.”
Bureaucrats and politicians largely agree New Orleans must shift from trying to engineer the problem away and learn how to live with water through designs like those espoused by the Front Yard Initiative. The city articulated this vision, inspired by Dutch stormwater management, in a 2013 document called the Urban Water Plan. The plan detailed how and where the city needs to install green infrastructure that can capture and slow down water before it overwhelms the drainage system.
As with most infrastructure projects, these ambitious designs will take years to become a reality. Some large-scale resilience projects are already underway.
But so far, the city has not set aside any dedicated funding for green infrastructure or permeable surfacing. Instead, “it relies on one-time disaster money you hope we don’t have reason to keep getting,” says Thomas, like FEMA money from Katrina and a HUD grant comprised of leftover Hurricane Sandy relief funds. That will become a major barrier down the line, given that the Urban Water Plan would take more than $6 billion to implement in its entirety.
“The bureaucracy more sustainably has to migrate from large projects with disaster money to incremental but reliable investment in green infrastructure—one yard, one neutral ground, one park, one parking lot at a time,” says Thomas.
Moving toward solutions
Now that it has a roadmap in the Urban Water Plan, the city is taking some important steps toward resiliency. A zoning ordinance adopted in 2015 requires new developments over 5,000 square feet to come up with an approved plan to manage the first 1.25 inches of rain on their property. That’s a big improvement, but its parameters cover mainly new, large commercial properties—a relatively limited swath of private space.
On the other end of the size spectrum, the Front Yard Initiative is still hitting its stride. The program has worked with 23 homeowners since launching in 2016, and is on track to double that number this year. Lavergne reports they’ve received a rush of inquiries from homeowners since the August flood—about 24 new people—and are brainstorming new ways to expand access to more residents. Most New Orleanians are renters who can’t just rip up their yards, so FYI is starting to think how to tailor their pitch to landlords and collaborate with the city housing authority.
There’s still a gap to fill between front yards and big businesses. Thomas believes stormwater management should be enshrined in New Orleans’ building codes, like earthquake-proofing requirements in San Francisco.
“In a bowl that sees as much rain as we do, a standard-issue building or a lot of land has to hold back a certain amount of water regardless of your size,” says Thomas.
That sense of collective responsibility for stormwater also needs to translate into revenue. Many municipalities charge residents a stormwater drainage fee that feeds into a reliable funding source for infrastructure maintenance. Outgoing Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently endorsed this idea, though the details are still vague. A drainage fee could be adjusted to the size of a property and the amount of water being contributed to the drainage system. Conversely, a property owner could get a discount on the fee based on how much water they hold back on their property through green infrastructure, Thomas notes.
Telling residents they need to pay more is always a political challenge. But as August’s flood showed, the costs are piling up anyway. “It is costing everyone mentally and monetarily,” Lavergne says.
Becky Lloyd didn’t fully realize how much the constant flooding was weighing on her until her new yard was finished. The stress that had become so associated with rain vanished.
“I love rainstorms,” she says, “and I like that I can enjoy them again.”