R-J commentary

The Las Vegas Review-Journal published a commentary I wrote about flood season and life in the storm drains. Here’s the commentary, which is a combination of stuff from Beneath the Neon, the media materials and original writing:

It’s flood season in Las Vegas, the time of year when sidewalks become streams, streets rivers and intersections lakes.

Despite its aridity – only 4.5 inches of rain a year – Las Vegas has a long and ugly history of flooding. In July 1905, two months after the city was founded, a thunderstorm soaked the dirt roads and wooden storefronts and sprawling ranches. A series of floods swamped stores and homes, shorted out phone and power lines and shut down roads and railroads in the summer of 1955. And a July 1975 flood swept hundreds of cars from the parking lot of Caesars Palace, closed down a section of the Strip and claimed at least two lives.

Between 1982 and 2002, at least 19 lives were lost to floods in Las Vegas.

The city’s most destructive modern-day flood occurred in July 1999, when three inches of rain fell in an hour and a half. The Las Vegas and Clark County fire departments performed more than 200 swift-water rescues and the water caused $20 million in property damage. A week after the flood, President Clinton declared the county a disaster area.

An August 2003 flood crippled northwest Vegas, causing millions of dollars of damage.

But when the lightning flashes, the thunder volleys and the rain begins to fall this flood season, I won’t be thinking about street closures and property damage. I’ll be thinking about Lawrence, Eddie, Ernie, Mike, Harold, Gary and the hundreds of other people who live in the storm drains.
Armed with a flashlight, tape recorder and expandable baton for protection, I’ve been exploring the storm drains for more than five years. It all started in the summer of 2002, when I explored a handful of drains with freelance writer Joshua Ellis. It culminated in the summer of 2004, when I surveyed the system in full. It continues today, as I return to explore virgin tunnels and escort friends and journalists through the black maze.

In the system – an intricate web that spans from mountain range to mountain range – I’ve discovered art, architecture and wildlife (crawfish, mosquito fish, stray cats and dogs). I’ve discovered access to the hotel-casinos and airports. And I’ve discovered a bunch of weird miscellaneous items, including a bowling bowl, safe and burned-out car.

But the most surprising thing I’ve discovered in the storm drains are people.

Lawrence, a Vietnam vet with a harelip and lisp, lived in a wet drain south of the Tropicana hotel-casino. Supported by bungee cords and baling wire, his camp was suspended at least 3 feet above a stream of urban runoff. He told me he lived in the drain because he enjoyed his privacy.

A former jockey with ears as big as detention basins, Ernie lived in a 3-feet-in-diameter lateral pipe for 11 years. He slept in the midsection of the pipe and painted it beige, so he could detect black widows (which really give him the creeps). A piece of cardboard served as his mattress, a candle as his reading light. When I met him, he was washing a T-shirt in a stream of runoff.

Bob and Jona (pronounced John-a), married 17 years and hopelessly addicted to heroin, lived in an open-air channel near Tropicana and Eastern avenues in the saddest little home I’d seen in my life. A box spring served as the outside wall and a bedsheet, weighed down by books, as the roof. A piece of cardboard somehow pinned the sheet against the channel wall. Garbage bags bulging with food, clothing, books, toiletries and trash surrounded the hut, like rusted cars around a mobile home.

And there are many others. Teens, baby boomers and senior citizens. Poets, artists and madmen. Hustlers, whores and Vietnam vets. Most addicted to alcohol, drugs or gambling. Some dying of diseases, including cancer and AIDS. All in danger of getting washed away during the next flood.

One of the reasons I explored the storm drains was to draw attention to the plight of the people living in them and get them some help. I hoped Metro would sweep the drains. The city and county would make outreach workers available to the displaced. And they would be placed in hospitals, rehab centers, temporary or permanent housing, whatever’s appropriate.

But, of course, things are never that simple in Las Vegas. Metro barely has the staff to investigate murder cases thoroughly, so sweeping the storm drains isn’t a priority. The city and county don’t have enough outreach workers to handle the aboveground homeless – much less the additional 200 to 300 people in the drains. There’s a shortage of hospital, rehab center and shelter beds. Affordable housing? Maybe five years ago … in Pahrump, Mesquite or Laughlin.

Additionally, politicians and hotel-casino executives don’t seem to want to acknowledge the problem.

So when the lightning flashes, the thunder volleys and the rain begins to fall on Las Vegas, I’m going to have to settle for thinking about the people in the storm drains. And hope that eventually someone else will think about them, too.

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