The drowning of an Oklahoma firefighter and a Texas teenager in storms that swept through the Southwest highlight the persistent dangers posed by storm drains that help protect neighborhoods during flash flooding but can suck in unsuspecting residents and rescue workers.
The deaths are renewing calls for cities to identify potentially dangerous drain openings and cover them with grates or add other safety measures.
Drainage systems constructed in many densely populated areas to collect stormwater feature wide drain openings at the bottom of open culverts or ditches that feed into long pipes. During floods, the drainage channels create powerful currents that can sweep people in, along with those trying to rescue them.
In Claremore, Oklahoma, on Saturday, Fire Capt. Jason Farley was leading a rescue crew that helped evacuate families from flooded duplexes in the Tulsa suburb when he stepped into a water-filled box culvert, said Fire Chief Sean Douglas.
Farley and another firefighter who tried to rescue him were pulled into a drain pipe. The other firefighter traveled 200 yards until he was ejected from the pipe and survived, but Farley got caught inside and died.
“The water was high enough you couldn't see the box culvert at all,” Douglas said.
In the Dallas suburb of DeSoto, Texas, 14-year-old Damien Blade was walking his dogs when authorities believe he was swept into an opening in a neighborhood drainage system and drowned.
The two were among at least 19 people who died in holiday weekend flooding in Texas and Oklahoma.
Several deaths or near-drownings occur every year in storm drains. In 2002, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended that municipalities take steps “to minimize potential for injury” after the death of a Denver firefighter who was swept into a pipe while rescuing a woman stranded in a flood near a water-filled culvert.
Some local officials fear that covering the drains with grates might worsen flood damage to homes and property if they get clogged with debris.
“Clogging is one of our main concerns and that's why many municipalities have to evaluate storm inlets on a case-by-case basis,” said Jon Durst, sewer superintendent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where a 17-year-old boy died in a storm drain last summer. “You have to balance the risk.”
Cedar Rapids recently spent $50,000 to add a grate and fencing at the drowning site, and is looking at modifications to 16 other drain openings near schools and parks.
National public works and engineering groups say the grates can be kept clear with routine maintenance and innovative designs. Fences, guardrails and warning signs are other safety options.
Ken MacKenzie, a committee co-chair for the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies, said new drainage systems are generally safer but cities need to upgrade many older structures that “can get a lot of water depth at the inlet of a pipe” and create dangerous situations.
“In light of the deaths that we've seen, it is a call to action for all public works people to be on the lookout,” he said.
In Claremore, Oklahoma, City Manager Jim Thomas said he's asked his staff to evaluate the many open drainage ditches in the community of 19,000.
“Do we need to put safety rails in? We're exploring all of those things now,” he said.
In the absence of state and federal regulation, cities take different approaches to managing the safety of their drainage systems.
Authorities in DeSoto, Texas, say they are not sure how Damien Blade was pulled into the drain in his suburban neighborhood. He was walking his two dogs when he went missing Sunday night. Police said one of the dogs came home wet and muddy. Searchers found the teenager's body and the other dog dead Monday.
“He had an adventurous spirit and enjoyed exploring the culverts and storm drain areas,” DeSoto police Cpl. Nick Bristow said. “It's just terrible.”