New Orleans has been plagued by flash flooding in recent years, and not just from major storms like Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall 14 years ago Thursday. A recent study from Louisiana State University found that, amid climate change, storms are simply dumping more water in the area.
But another problem is flaws in the aging drainage system that takes stormwater out of the city. New Orleans, sitting below sea level, is famously protected by levees that keep water from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain from flowing into the streets. But it’s also protected from everyday storms by a system of street-level storm drains, pumps, and drainage canals that haul water up and out of the city.
Some of those pumps are quite old, running on antiquated power supplies and prone to occasional breakdowns at inopportune times. But even when the pumps are operational, the drainage system can struggle to do its job if pathways for water are clogged. After torrential rain from a thunderstorm in 2017 damaged homes and businesses and rendered many cars undrivable, city contractors with truck-mounted vacuums pulled 7.2 million pounds of trash from storm drains. In one five-block stretch of St. Charles Avenue, where Carnival krewes parade each year, they collected 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads alone.
Those plastic beads, thrown from the tops of floats and often left in the street, aren’t great for the environment to begin with: They’re often painted with pigments including lead and other toxic heavy metals, and one study suggested that lead leaches into the soil around parade routes.
But in the past few days, after recent flash flooding, officials have found even larger obstructions in the city’s drainage system, including vehicles and furniture that somehow migrated to an underwater drainage canal. One Mazda 626 was pulled out of the tunnel last week, sporting a 2007 registration sticker, and officials have since pulled out portions of another car, along with a sofa, bicycles, shopping carts, and other debris—370 tons so far, according to a nola.com report.
When the rusted Mazda was hauled from the drain, it was found to be sporting some festive decorations: Mardi Gras beads, which presumably also got washed into the drainage system.