A group of residents is suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to try to halt work on the massive drainage project Uptown and have the courts appoint an outside official to oversee what they describe as a “chaotic and out-of-control” undertaking.
The suit is the second this year against agencies involved in the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project that complains of damage from construction that has rattled homes and snarled traffic for years as the Corps and the Sewerage & Water Board install the huge drains necessary to handle bigger rain storms.
While the previous suit, brought by the same residents against the Sewerage & Water Board, seeks compensation for damage to homes harmed by vibrations from the project, the new case asks a judge to appoint an official who would force the Corps to proceed in a more careful and orderly way.
The plaintiffs want steps taken to “ensure no further irreparable damages are inflicted upon … historic properties by the unreasonable and reckless work practices currently employed by the contractors on the project.”
The suit, filed last week, alleges that little has been done to mitigate the harm, despite the fact that workers are operating in a historic district.
William Sewell, who lives on Jefferson Avenue and is one of the plaintiffs, said trucks have been moving along the corridor on a regular basis, and sometimes as many as seven pieces of heavy equipment have been working outside his house at a time. That’s led to what the suit describes as “earthquake-like” vibrations that have cracked walls, bricks and tiles and knocked down and shattered antique and irreplaceable china, Sewell said.
“They’re way over time from the point of view of when they were supposed to be finished. It looks like they’re going to be one or two years late at least,” Sewell said. “Of course, that’s misery when this stuff is going on in front of your house.”
A Corps spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The drainage work, commonly known as SELA, stems from severe flooding in 1995. It aims to ensure the region’s drainage system can handle levels of rainfall that have a 1-in-10 chance of occurring in any given year.
In New Orleans, the most extensive work has been focused Uptown, as the Corps upgrades culverts beneath major arteries such as Napoleon and Jefferson avenues.
While acknowledging the importance of the project, the suit alleges the Corps has been haphazard in its oversight of the work, doing little to minimize the damage to homes or to tamp down dust and dirt kicked up by equipment.
“No matter what you’re trying to do, it gets on everything,” Sewell said.
The suit seeks a temporary injunction to keep the work from proceeding while the case is ongoing and calls on the court to appoint an independent official to oversee the Corps’ implementation of a plan to reduce the damage and inconvenience.
The case may proceed in tandem with the suit filed this summer against the water board, which, as the local agency working on the project, does not enjoy the same breadth of immunity as the Corps does for the consequences of its work.
For Sewell, who served as a top official in the city’s Public Works Department under former Mayors Marc Morial and Ray Nagin, there’s a bit of irony to getting involved with a suit against a major construction project.
“When I was with the city, I used to try to defend or explain these kinds of things that were going on,” Sewell said. “Now I find I can’t defend them.”
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.