Subsidence has caused sinking ground below the sidewalk along Nemours Street in the Village de L’Est neighborhood in New Orleans. (Photo by Julie Dermansky)
This story was reported through a partnership that includes the Louisiana Illuminator, Floodlight, The Lens, WWNO-FM and The Guardian.
NEW ORLEANS – In the early 1990s, James Wright lost his family home in the 9th Ward neighborhood when a new school was built on his block.
“They basically took our houses because they gave us very little money for them,” he said. “And most of the people were old Black people who owned their homes.”
After he lost his property on Lamanche Street, Wright bought a house from his brother in the New Orleans East neighborhood in 1992. But he’s once again losing ground. This time quite literally.
The ground has been sinking all across New Orleans as the Mississippi River soil that created the city dries out and compacts – but few places are as bad as in a section of New Orleans East known as Village de L’Est, a predominantly Black and Vietnamese community. A few years ago, Wright’s boat, stored in his backyard, was nearly swallowed by the ground.
“I can tell the house is sinking. You see how the driveway is falling apart?” he said, pointing to cracked and slanted cement.
A study conducted in 2016 by NASA identified groundwater use from a nearby, now-shuttered power plant as the primary cause for the sinking.
Entergy New Orleans, which owns the plant, denies responsibility for the subsidence. Recently it built a new power plant that relies on surface water, not groundwater. But residents are still left with sinking homes, crumbling foundations – and nowhere to turn for help. Members of the New Orleans City Council, which regulates Entergy, who were contacted for this story did not respond to a request for comments.
Dawn Hebert, president of the East New Orleans Neighborhood Advisory Commission, said it’s expensive for residents to try to fix that damage on their own, paying for dirt and other necessary fixes caused by the subsidence.
“It’s just unfortunate,” she said, “that companies don’t want to take responsibility for what they caused.”
Five times greater
Before it shut down in 2015, Entergy’s Michoud power plant was the top groundwater user in New Orleans, accounting for up to 11 million gallons of groundwater per day, or 90% of all groundwater withdrawn in Orleans Parish, according to US Geological Survey data.
When groundwater is over pumped from underground aquifers, it leaves a void in the aquifer, sometimes causing the land above to collapse. More than 80% of subsidence nationwide is caused by the overpumping of groundwater, according to the US Geological Survey. In Village de L’Est , the ground has been sinking at a rate of up to 1.5 inches per year— more than five times the average subsidence rate across New Orleans, according to the NASA study.
Village de L’Est residents first called attention to Entergy’s groundwater use and the subsidence NASA noted, in 2016. Recently, the climate-vulnerable community tried to block Entergy’s new gas-fired power plant, in part because of its contribution to global heating. Still, the facility was approved by the New Orleans City Council, despite evidence paid actors were used to feign local support.
Entergy hired a hydrologist in 2016 to evaluate subsidence in New Orleans East. The hydrologist concluded pumping at the decommissioned Michoud plant was not a factor, and determined the new power plant wouldn’t cause further subsidence. An Entergy New Orleans spokesperson told Floodlight it had “addressed the prior concerns” of New Orleans East residents regarding whether there was a connection between subsidence and damage to area structures. The new power plant uses 99% less groundwater.
Louisiana-based geologist Alex Kolker, a science adviser for the state’s climate task force, found Entergy’s expert report to be inadequate – in part, he said, because it only considered one moment in time. For subsidence to be measured, ground elevation between two points in time must be compared.
“There has been a lot of water withdrawal in this area,” Kolker said. “And there is a really large cone of depression centered around the Michoud plant.”
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Some areas near the plant have subsided as much as a foot and a half since 1960. Levees in the area, fortified after Hurricane Katrina, have also sunk in recent years.
“If the land is subsiding then the levee is subsiding too,” said Cathleen Jones, a senior research scientist with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the lead author of a 2016 study that identified the cause of the sinking land around the Entergy plant.
The US Army Corps of Engineers has proposed a $1.9 billion plan to lift the region’s levees, but funds for the project have not been allocated. The corps does not assign responsibility to any single cause of the subsidence.
What’s done is done
While the primary cause of the sinking may have been removed, residents of Village de L’Est are left to deal with its impact. Driveways are cracked, some front doors open more than a foot above the ground, and manholes hover above collapsed roads.
“We’re constantly putting dirt on our property,” in an attempt to keep houses from further sinking and to level out yards, said Ed Blouin, a homeowner in Village de L’Est and president of Village De L’Est Improvement Association. “It affects your foundation.”
In severe cases, gas and water pipelines can also break. In the 1970s, several house explosions in the community were attributed to gas leaks caused by subsidence.
Historically, discriminatory policies at the federal, state and local level forced Black residents into low-lying, flood prone areas of the city, such as New Orleans East. The community sits lower in elevation than predominantly white neighborhoods, such as Uptown and the French Quarter, which were built on natural banks of the Mississippi River.
Subsidence caused by groundwater removal happens deep underground and compounds the regions’ subsidence problem, said Torbjörn Törnqvist, a Tulane University coastal geologist. According to him, extreme groundwater use could have caused the same amount of subsidence elsewhere – even in Uptown, where the land is higher because of its location on a natural Mississippi River levee.
A map of subsidence along the Gulf of Mexico — from Corpus Christi, Texas, to New Orleans — is expected to be published in the fall based on analysis of satellite data collected since 2016.
Preliminary findings suggest the New Orleans area was fairly stable overall, with little subsidence. Because the map covers so much land mass, it does not capture subsidence at the neighborhood level, said Ann Chen, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who is working on the study.
If groundwater pumping leads the aquifers to drop below historic lows, the resulting subsidence can be irreversible. “A lot of subsidence doesn’t recover even after the groundwater pumping stops,” she said. “Those are the types of things we hope to avoid through better monitoring.”
Chen’s team will be taking a closer look at subsidence in the New Orleans East area based on reporting for this story.
But, in the meantime, for New Orleans East residents, the sinking feeling has not gone away. “The damage that has been done has been done,” Blouin said.
This reporting is supported by a grant from the Fund for Environmental Journalism.
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