John and Dino Aversa's backyard has been sliding into the drainage canal behind their Slidell house for years, but in recent months, the erosion has picked up speed, sending a huge water oak crashing down across their fence in November.
Now, the decking around their swimming pool is tilting down toward the ditch that's known as the Reine Lateral, part of the W-14 drainage canal, one of the major drainage arteries that take rainwater out of the city.
There's no land at all left between their fence and the ditch, just a 7-foot drop, and the pool itself is beginning to bulge. The couple thinks it's just a matter of time before they lose the pool, too.
But while the erosion is worsening, the Aversas' efforts to get help have gone nowhere. John Aversa said he's been trying for a year to get city or parish officials to address the erosion problem.
"I feel for the man, I really do," Slidell Mayor Greg Cromer said. "I see someone who has a significant investment ... and it's washing away."
Cromer said he and his staff, including the city attorney and engineers, have met three times to discuss the matter. "I wish there was something I could do," he said.
The ditch is almost vertical, with virtually no slope, Cromer said. For that reason, dredging the canal and using the spoil to reinforce the bank isn't an option. Even getting equipment to the site is a challenge, he said, with no room on either side of the canal.
Aversa said the city had not even cleaned out the ditch for 10 years, and water from heavy rains has been getting higher and higher. A crew finally came out in October, but Aversa said the workers only cleared the ditch behind his house and partially behind his neighbor's home.
Far from helping, Aversa thinks, that work made matters worse, because the crews removed vines and other foliage on the banks that had provided some barrier against the erosion. The tree fell a month later, its massive root system pulling up even more of the ground.
While Cromer is sympathetic and City Councilman Glynn Pichon says the issue has him "tossing and turning" at night, city officials are clearly worried about the possibility that Slidell will be sued.
City Attorney Bryan Haggerty declined to comment on the recent problems, citing the potential for litigation.
Aversa and his next-door neighbor, Sue Johnson, sued the state, parish and city in 22nd Judicial District Court in late 2010 over ongoing damage to their yards. But a judge ruled that their lawsuit was filed too long after they discovered the damage. The law allows two years, and Johnson had spotted the problems in 2000 and Aversa in 2005.
Aversa said he and Johnson had turned to litigation because the city and parish kept blaming each other, and they couldn't get anyone to take responsibility.
He said they never expected to prevail at the district level and had hoped for success at a higher court. But their lawyer became ill and died without filing an appeal.
But Aversa said he's not taking the city to court this time: "I have no intention of suing. I just want to save my backyard."
Early last year, he spent about $10,000 to put in a new fence and build up the bank behind his house with dirt and bags of cement.
Johnson, his neighbor, has had sinkholes in her backyard that the city filled in a few times. After Hurricane Katrina, she hired a contractor to do some work on the bank. That held for about five years, she said, but now another sinkhole has opened up. She discovered it when she stepped into it while doing yard work.
A more extensive fix would cost as much as $40,000, she said, too much for her to afford.
As for Aversa, he put in a claim with his homeowner's insurance company, which has agreed to pay $6,000 of the $10,000 he spent. But without some solution to the erosion, he's reluctant to spend even more money on repairs.
The residents say that it's not just their problem. Aversa said he couldn't sell his home in its current condition, and that the financial hit he's taking will end up affecting property values in the whole neighborhood.
He's circulating a petition, hoping that other neighbors will join him in asking for help.
In the meantime, what had been a haven for their extended family has become a place where Dino Aversa said it's too dangerous for their grandchildren to play.
"We had a pool party for our granddaughter in August," she said ruefully. "She loved it. It was so beautiful."