An activist group and a historic church filed a lawsuit Monday against the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, asking a judge to order the beleaguered agency to warn residents of future drainage problems that could lead to flooding.
The lawsuit, filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, accuses officials of failing to provide up-to-date information about the city's antiquated drainage system, leaving residents unable to protect their families and property.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the New Orleans People's Assembly, a group led by activist Malcolm Suber, and the Sixth Union Baptist Church, which was inundated over the summer during the flooding that exposed widespread deficiencies at the S&WB.
It claims the state and federal constitutions "require the government to provide citizens with adequate and timely notice and an opportunity to be heard when public utilities or services are shut off or not functioning." The 10-page petition cites the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which broadly states that no one shall "be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law."
Among other demands, the plaintiffs want city officials to publish operation logs every 12 hours and provide "immediate notice" to the public when power turbines or pumps malfunction.
"We want to build systems that allow the public to monitor every part of the pump and drainage system — every single part — in real time," said Davida Finger, an attorney and professor at the Loyola University law clinic. "We want everything to be explained in plain language. We're asking for very basic due process."
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A S&WB spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Sixth Union Baptist Church took on about 4 feet of water on July 22, the first of two deluges that occurred during a two-week span when several drainage pumps were not operating properly. The church on Orleans Avenue, which is nearly 150 years old, needed just one more license to reopen its doors after 12 years. Now it's replacing walls and wiring after its first floor was completely flooded.
The lawsuit says at least six of the city's drainage pumps were not operational during that flood, even though city officials initially claimed "the system was running properly."
"We're set back, not because of any actions of our doing but because of the negligence of the Sewerage & Water Board and city officials," said Shawon Bernard, the church's secretary.
While the church sustained serious damage in the flood, the lawsuit does not explicitly seek monetary damages. "This case is not about money," Finger said. "This case is about due process."
The second deluge, on Aug. 5, caused even more damage, flooding scores of properties in Lakeview, Mid-City and other neighborhoods, as up to 9 inches of rain fell within four hours in the hardest-hit parts of town. S&WB officials ultimately admitted that numerous drainage pumps also were inoperative during that flood for various reasons — a reversal of their initial claim that all the pumps were working.
The lawsuit notes that the S&WB publishes regular drainage capacity reports on its website but says this information fails to include "clear, plain-language descriptions to give notice of which neighborhoods are most at risk and how non-operational pumps are linked to certain neighborhoods."
"They have been negligent for years, and we're here to denounce their inactivity," said Malcolm Suber, the leader of the People's Assembly. "We're fighting to make sure this city does not have apprehension every time we have a thunderstorm or during hurricane season."
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