The biggest challenge facing the Clark County Regional Flood Control District today is not the chance that rushing storm waters will inundate homes and businesses. “The biggest problem we’re having right now, frankly, are the homeless living in the system,” says Steven Parrish, the agency’s chief engineer and general manager. “They get swept up in the flood flows and have to be rescued.”
An estimated 300 people live in the hundreds of miles of storm drains running under the Las Vegas Valley, according to Louis Lacey, director of crisis teams for HELP of Southern Nevada. “It’s an ideal way to get out of the elements, be it extreme heat or cold,” he says.
But the drains are dangerous in a rainstorm. Three people drowned in them in 2016. “When it rains, flood water comes rushing down the storm drains and everything the water picks up becomes a projectile, which can lead to you being knocked down and taken down under the water,” Lacey says.
When Lacey receives notification of an impending storm, he sends his mobile crisis intervention team to the tunnels to post warning signs and tell people to leave. “Some people are grateful for the warning,” he says. “Others really don’t respond in a positive manner. It’s a mixed reaction.”
Lacey says he understands why the drains might be attractive for certain homeless individuals. Drug addiction is a common vice in the tunnels. But a significant level of risk comes with it. “If it rains and you are unprepared or incapacitated, there’s a high possibility that it will end badly.”
Parrish is often asked why the flood district doesn’t put up grates at the entrances to the storm drains. The problem, he says, is that while grates might keep out the homeless, they also would block debris, which would build up and block the water from flowing into the drains.
For Lacey, the solution is not grates, it’s more and better services for the valley’s homeless population.
“We’re hoping that more shelters are built and housing is made more available so that people can access these resources and get on the path to self-sufficiency,” he says.