A year ago this week, the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through the northeast, causing flash flooding and laying bare one of the dangers of stormwater drainage systems. In New Jersey alone, at least five people were sucked into open pipes and culverts. Four of them died.
After ProPublica’s story about the long-neglected problem of unsafe storm sewers and their death toll of at least three dozen since 2015, federal and local authorities have taken action.
Last April, the Department of Housing and Urban Development added an “important consideration” to its guidelines for HUD housing developments: those conducting environmental assessments should consider whether nearby stormwater infrastructure includes “measures such as grids or fences to prevent drowning during floods”.
HUD officials said they made the change after reading the ProPublica article and speaking with officials in Denver’s Mile High Flood District. The District of Denver has for years preached the importance of installing grates over certain entrances to prevent people from being sucked in when the area is flooded and stormwater rushes to an open drain pipe, which is often out of sight below the waterline. The District of Mile High has developed criteria that cities and towns can use to determine which openings might be dangerous enough to warrant coverage.
Holly Piza, director of research and development for the Mile High Flood District, said moving HUD could save lives. “It’s fantastic that the [grate] the research has drawn this intense national attention,” she said. “This research can save lives if we have the attention of those who can help raise awareness and make a difference.”
His organization, along with Colorado’s Larimer County Dive Rescue Team, Colorado State University Hydraulics Laboratory, and engineering firm AECOM, are currently seeking detailed measurements that city engineers could use to decide exactly how to position a grate and what type of grate would work best for a given drain. Once the research is complete, HUD officials said they would consider incorporating it into their training on environmental assessments or floodplain management.
Piza also said officials from several municipalities have contacted the Denver District over the past year to ask how to secure their drains.
The number of storm drain deaths continued to rise in 2022. In June, a 10-year-old boy, his father and another man were killed in Milwaukee when they were dragged into a large drainage culvert after heavy rains. The boy fell into the ditch while chasing a soccer ball. His father and the other man jumped in to save him.
And in Germantown, Tennessee, a youth soccer coach died in early August when he went into a storm drain to help save one of his players. The boy and his father, who also jumped down the drain, survived.
A community featured in the ProPublica story apparently took no action. ProPublica revisited South Plainfield, New Jersey, where two men were pulled through an underground pipe during Ida, and saw no apparent improvement in safety. Middlesex County officials responsible for maintaining the sewers declined to answer questions; they also declined last year.
Communities that repel grids often say that the cost of installing and maintaining them is prohibitive. They also frequently cite the potential for grates to exacerbate flooding if clogged with debris.
But two other New Jersey communities featured in the story took steps to prevent future tragedies.
In Maplewood during Ida, a father of two was pulled into a drainage system while trying to clear debris from the driveway. He and his neighbors complained for years about the danger of the pipe. Maplewood had to receive permission from the New Jersey Department of the Environment, which regulates tributaries and waterways, before it could grate the opening. The state was initially against the measure, but changed course after the death. The pipe is now covered with a grid.
And in Passaic, a large culvert twice generated national news by attracting people during flooding. In July 2020, DoorDash driver Nathalia Bruno was swept away by the culvert after she fled her car during a flash flood, but she survived. Bruno told his heartbreaking story in the newspapers and city officials spoke about the installation of grates and warning signs. But local engineers pushed back, saying the grates would clog and lead to more flooding.
Then, during Ida a year later, best friends Nidhi Rana, 18, and Ayush Rana (unrelated), 21, abandoned their flooded car and were sucked into the same drain that had drawn Bruno. They are dead.
Like Maplewood, Passaic had to get approval from the state environmental department before it could move forward with any solutions. The city proposed grids similar to those suggested by the Denver Flood District, as well as fencing; both measures were rejected due to concerns about clogging and flooding, Mayor Hector Lora said.
According to Lora, the state now appears to be open to a grid system that would completely cover the culvert and could actually be walked on.
Lora said finding a cure is a must.
“I don’t know how I stand in front of the community and tell them after having three people pass by that there’s still nothing we can do about it,” he said.