FOX 8 Defenders: Hidden dangers with deadly consequences

Updated: Nov. 16, 2018 at 9:15 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Watching our FOX 8 Defenders special report on blighted and abandoned pools in New Orleans opened old, painful wounds for Devona Waker. “I don’t wish that kind of pain on nobody to go through any of that.. cause I literally watched my child take his last breath,” Waker said.

She’ll never forget Mother’s Day weekend 2008. Waker and her kids were visiting her mom in New Orleans East when her seven-year-old son, Christopher, a twin, ended up at the bottom of a neighbor’s dark, stagnant swimming pool.

“At that time the gate was wide open so it wasn’t even locked,” Waker explained. “I saw straight across that chain link fence, and I saw the pool, and I actually saw him in the pool, and he was just yelling, and I was like oh my God,” she said.

Christopher had been playing ball and chased after it not realizing where it had landed was actually a swimming pool. “If you would have saw how it looked like, it looked like a patch of grass on a pool. It looked like a putting green kind of like,” Waker said.

She recalled how a firefighter dove right in to the layer of algae to help. “He just instantly just dived into the pool and he came up.. and he came up and he was like, I can’t see, it’s dark, it’s murky, I can’t see nothing, and he was like are you sure he’s in here and I was like he’s in there.. he’s in there and he went back in again and when he came up.. he came up with Christopher’s body,” Waker explained.

Emergency responders performed CPR, and they got a pulse, but it was faint. By the time Christopher reached a hospital, his heart had stopped beating.

“I won’t be able to see him growing to be a man, have a family, have kids.. get to experience life because his was.. his was cut short. It was senseless because nobody took the responsibility that they had of covering up the pool,” Waker said.

Hours after her son drowned, Waker remembers how City workers showed up. “By the time night fell, they had filled the pool. They filled the pool with sand. They filled it and patched it with sand, and I mean when we went back there just to take a look at it, you wouldn’t have even thought a pool was back there,” she said. And for young Christopher, it was too late.

“If we prevent the death of one child, this ordinance is completely worth it. It’s totally clear this is an emergency where you have unsecured, unfiltered pools,” New Orleans City Council member Joe Giarrusso said in October. Last month, he proposed a new law the entire City Council backed, narrowly targeting emergency pools.

An abandoned and blighted swimming pool on Charlene Drive in New Orleans East that the FOX 8 Defenders exposed last week is a prime example of an emergency. It’s not filtered, and there’s no fence, and it’s on a lot that’s been vacant since 2009.

That pool is located in City Council member Cyndi Nguyen's district. She called it unacceptable. "I'm glad that you guys brought this to our attention," she said.

It may be the most egregious example of an emergency pool under the new law, which says the City of New Orleans can fill it in immediately. “They (the City) have the authority and that’s what should be done,” Giarrusso said.

This week, we found another pool that meets the criteria of an emergency. In Venetian Isles, a stagnant pool sits right in the middle of a vacant lot on Fort Macomb Road. Again, there’s no fence.

The pool on Charlene Drive and the one on Fort Macomb Road are two examples of blighted pools the City should immediately fill-in based on the new law Mayor Latoya Cantrell approved October 23rd.

Meantime, there are dozens of other reported pools that may or may not be considered an emergency under the new law, yet some have been in Code Enforcement for years, creating concerns for neighbors.

“We’ve had five hearings at the Code Enforcement, and nothing has been done to take care of the pool,” concerned citizen Rita LeGrand said. She’s not exaggerating when it comes to the vacant home at 4216 Encampment Street near Bayou St. John and Mcdonogh 35 High School. It’s been in Code Enforcement hearings in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2017 and just recently in September. Several violations center on the blighted pool and the unsecure fencing.

“You know the animals come around to drink out of it. It’s a mess.. I’m sure mosquitoes, and we’ve had the West Nile right there in City Park so it’s really scary,” LeGrand said.

The problem as we’ve pointed out in previous FOX 8 Defenders reports, Code Enforcement shows the property “exits abatement” once “payment (for fines) is received.” So the owner pays up and the case is closed, but violations don’t always get fixed. With this property that’s happened more than once.

"Clearly, fines alone don't work. It is the fine plus the abatement has to happen," Giarrusso said.

Code Enforcement Director Albert “Snapper” Poche says his department is actively reviewing judgments to ensure the City has leverage to abate in cases that pay up. “This has been a problem that has existed in history, and you know when Mayor Cantrell came in, we.. I think that we weren’t addressing pools as well as we could have, and we’re proactively going after these blighted pools,” Poche said.

In the case of Encampment Street, the City, in September, pushed to declare the property a public nuisance. The Code Enforcement hearing officer agreed, telling the homeowner, “there is an order that the City is now taking positive steps regarding all the abandoned pools. That means that if you do not fill it in 30 days, the City will do so.” That hearing was September 27th. The 30 day period ended October 27th, and the pool is still stagnant.

Public records show the owner, Lydia Henry, wants an extension. Two quotes to fill the pool show it’ll cost her more than $7,000. Because the property is tied up in litigation against a contractor who engaged to renovate the property in 2008, exhausting her resources, she’s asked to wait until after her upcoming trial in December.

Devona Waker can’t believe 10 years after losing her little boy, this continues to be an issue. For her, blighted swimming pools are personal.

"How many more other kids are gonna have to lose their lives because of these stagnant pools that are laying around in the City of New Orleans? How many more people is it gonna take? How many more funerals or how many more mothers is it gonna take to cry and plead your help?" she asked.

We've reached out to the owner of the Encampment Street pool and her attorney, but have not heard back.

The City says emergency pools will be drained and filled with river sand. The cost to do that would then get added as a lien against the blighted property.

If you’ve got a consumer issue you want us to address, call the FOX 8 Defenders staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women, the NCJW, or fill out our online complaint form.

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