Stories from the Sewer
TREKK Design Group provides many different services such as transportation design, construction inspection, survey, asset management, and GIS. Another large segment of our services falls within the corner that I work within: TREKK’s water and wastewater department.
Over the years, a number of off the cuff stories have been shared about the sewer business. Here’s a compilation of a few memorable ones that individuals at TREKK have experienced. Enjoy!
“Fun things happen to us all the time, man. The stories, they come from all over the place.”
-Robby Hartpence, Field Manager
Ballpark Village - Meet This Community
St. Louis, Missouri is known for having a growing large sewer system. TREKK has inspected some very large sewers in many different cities, but never one quite as inviting as in St. Louis, MO:
“We did a sewer walk a few years ago downtown. It was this real large underground tunnel, almost felt like a subway system or something. We were taking some measurements and doing a general assessment of what all was down there, where the sewer was located, and came across a portion where the street was starting to cave-in. Well, we also came across some kind of homeless village. Sofas and tents all over the place, there were little huts burrowed in the walls with plywood, tarps, and all. There were a couple hundred people - it was like a community down there.”
-Ron Thomann, Project Manager
“That was a crazy experience. Seeing all of those people come out of nowhere. There were tents and tarps and they had a seating area and tables. They just didn’t have power, but it was pretty much like a house, just under the city.”
-Jose De Los Santos, Field Technician
Storm Sewer Clean-Up After Hurricane Katrina
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, thousands of individuals helped do all that they could to help mitigate the disaster as quickly as possible. Everyone remembers the images of New Orleans after the storm ravaged the city and surrounding areas.
TREKK was contacted by another Kansas City based firm, Ace Pipe Cleaning, to help clean storm sewers throughout New Orleans. Six crew members traveled down to New Orleans. They recount the moving experience:
“We were down there for about two and a half months. Most of the time we were cleaning storm sewers. The streets weren’t cleaned at all yet so it was a little difficult to get around. We stayed in a church for the first month and a half or so – there was a hole in the roof of (the church)” - David Hamberlin, Regional Office Manager
“The church allowed us to stay there and they set up some makeshift showers and things like that for us. We’d sleep on the sanctuary floor at night and during the day head to these little tents Red Cross had set up for the few people that were still there. One of the things that sticks out to me were the streets–there was lots of silt and mud everywhere. In the flooded areas you couldn’t drive in your lane. It was such a muddy, slippery mess that your truck would slide to the curb and all you could do was slide down the road bumping off curbs. The work consisted of cleaning storm sewers–we’d vacuum up a ton of seashells, lots of mud, building materials and a fair amount of bricks. Another thing that sticks out was the spray painted X’s or crosses on all the buildings. I don’t remember what each quadrant meant, but it seemed like about every building had one of those X’s.” - Lemuel Tjardes, CADD Technician
Those spray painted X’s, later known as “Katrina crosses”, share another profound story: < click here >
The City of New Orleans has also documented this history from many city water and sewer employees as they worked to dewater the city only eleven days after the levees were repaired. These are known as “Katrina Heroes My Stories”: < click here, they are at the bottom of the page >
OK Creek Sewer
In the past few years, TREKK has performed a number of sewer walks to help determine the condition and exact routing of these very large storage structures. These structures are often very large and very old and require an immense amount of planning to ensure that the work is performed safely.
“We walked a sewer over by OK Creek. When we scouted it out, it was pretty clear that the flow levels were relatively low, but the structure itself was quite large (18 feet by 16 feet). We get about 1,000 feet or so in and the flow has gotten a little higher, nearly up to our knees, but you can tell it’s not going to get any higher in front of us. The pipe we were walking down was a double box culvert and merges into one large egg-shaped pipe that’s about 25 feet tall. My partner took a few steps in front of us, into this new opening, and dropped into three to four feet of (excrement)–right up to his waders. The entire bottom of the pipe was missing or eroded away.” - Jonathan Lyke, Project Coordinator
Although there is some humor regarding a scenario that someone goes swimming in the sewer, I want to point out that safety was of chief concern with this project. TREKK spent many hours ensuring that this project was performed correctly and safely.
Ever Find Anything Interesting On The Job?
“A riding lawn mower in a combined sewer system. It was over by Arrowhead Stadium. I guess somebody drove it on in and just left it there.” - Ron Thomann, Project Manager
“Down in Paris, Texas, I found 25 or 30 old silver dollars. They were all from the late 1800s, in the 1890s. Another odd one was over by the Leavenworth prison–we found a ton of old buttons. I’m talking thousands of these and they were labeled as Leavenworth Penitentiary. Talked to the guy at the prison, and he said they had to have been from a long, long time ago (because) there are no buttons on the uniforms anymore.” - Dennis Major, Jetter Operator
“When I worked in the field, I always kept my flip phone on my hip. I was working in Omaha and getting lowered into a structure and, you know, the harness really rides up on you. I didn’t notice it, but I think my phone rode down all the way on the side of my hoodie (instead of clipped to my hip). When my feet hit the bottom of the structure, I heard this ‘plop’ and, yeah, my phone dropped right in the channel. I took a step to grab it, and ‘clank’ - my cable and harness pulled me back. I was 6 inches away, but my phone ran on down with the current.
Well, that didn’t stop us from working. And you won’t believe it, but four manholes downstream, I found it. There was a little bend in the channel, and right there is my blue and silver flip-phone.”
I had to ask…Did you keep using the phone? “Yeah. I just scrubbed it down with bleach water, let it set on the dash for a few days to dry out, and used it for another year and a half or two years.” - Lemuel Tjardes, CADD Technician
Lions, Tigers, and…Corvettes? Oh my.
TREKK often performs smoke testing of sanitary sewers to help determine how the system is set-up and where possible illicit connections may exist. Typically smoke testing investigations will lead to determining why and where possible large amounts of rainwater may be entering the sanitary sewer.
Smoke testing requires ample notification to all properties and individuals in the area affected by smoke. For example, local fire departments are always notified well in advance to help prevent unnecessary mobilization if calls come in stating that there’s smoke in said area. It’s pretty common for folks to call 911 if they see smoke billowing out from a building or area an illicit connection exists. Understandable, right?
Remembers Associate Lucas Gillen: “Smoke testing at the Kansas City Zoo was a whole day deal. Everyone we had was there to make sure everything went as planned.” The project and smoke testing itself was planned out and went well all day. “We’re finishing up, heading out to the parking lot and there’s a car on fire–and it’s a corvette. A nice corvette!”
“I ran to an admin building of the zoo, running around looking for a fire extinguisher. I came up to someone who was on the phone…they couldn’t help me. So I ran to another room and opened up a supply closet to find the motherload of all fire extinguishers. This must have been the supply closet for all the extinguishers for the whole zoo. I grabbed the two biggest fire extinguishers I could and took off toward that parking lot.”
“Lucas was running about as fast as I’ve ever seen him with those fire extinguishers. But it all turned out fine; the fire department showed up, and I think the project helped them out.” -Tim Osborn, CCTV Operator
TREKK was able to help find the source contributing heavy flows to that area of the system. And the fire department was prepared and able to help everyone out, especially the owner of that Corvette!
Stories help IMPROVE LIVES. Special thanks to everyone that helped share their personal stories from working in the sewer business over the years. If you have any memorable stories to share, please don’t hesitate to reach out!
Alex Beck, GIS Technician