At 16, University of New Orleans alumna Meagan Williams saw first-hand the devastation that water could inflict upon a city. It was Thanksgiving Day 2005, and Williams and her family were driving around New Orleans attempting to process the wreckage wrought by Hurricane Katrina three months prior.
Williams recalled taking note of the dirt-brown water lines that ringed many of the homes and buildings and the red “Xs” and circle markings left by the military to denote searches. They stopped at an aunt’s house and got out to inspect the property.
The windows of the house were blown out and about 4-feet of mud caked up the walls, Williams said. There were dead fish inside the house.
“I just remember looking inside that house and going, ‘I didn’t know water could do that,’” Williams said. “I remember saying that over and over to myself. I had no idea that it was this powerful.”
After witnessing such a vivid manifestation of nature’s might, Williams told her mother that she wanted to be a part of helping “fix New Orleans.”
“I had no idea what that meant … I just said I want to help,” Williams said. “As a kid I always like to put things together, Legos, you name it and I’ll put it together. So, I needed something that I could start putting pieces together.”
Williams’ desire to create solutions led her to pursue a degree in civil engineering, after initially starting an architecture program.
“I was like this is much more interesting, this is a little bit more aligned with the idea, the seed that was planted,” as a teenager, Williams said. “It felt right.”
Williams earned a degree in civil engineering in 2012 and is now the stormwater manager for the City of New Orleans.
“One of my main responsibilities is developing new projects and identifying vulnerable areas that may need additional stormwater management,” said Williams. “These floods that we’ve gotten over the past few years are shining a light on areas that really need additional help aside from our drainage and our pump systems. So, that’s my responsibility, to identify where we go and what we do in those locations once we’ve identified them.”
The stormwater manager’s post did not exist until Williams advocated for the creation of it; having established herself as a proponent and leader of green infrastructure engineering.
“It was a need that I really saw, just by observing,” said Williams, who was introduced to green infrastructure while working as a project manager for a roadway program. “As I started to learn about them and understand them, I really saw the benefit that it could provide for our city.”
Green infrastructure engineering involves installing elements that are meant to mimic what nature does naturally, Williams said. In some cases, it includes removing cement or asphalt roadways or sidewalks in favor of planting rain gardens, creating bioswales or ditches that will absorb or hold water, allowing the city’s drainage to catch up.
“We sit on soil that is clay in New Orleans, and water can’t absorb into clay, not very fast at least. So, we have some ways where we can manufacture soil to include components that will allow for infiltration, allowing the water to be soaked up,” Williams said. “While on the surface, somethings might look like a really nice garden, it’s also something that can hold water for a specific amount of time while it’s raining, instead of putting that right into our drainage system.”
The Pontilly Neighborhood Stormwater project is a model for such green infrastructure strategies. Williams managed the $15 million project that is aimed at helping reduce flood risks, while also beautifying green spaces in the Gentilly Woods and Pontchartrain Park neighborhoods.
A myriad of elements installed across the two neighborhoods are designed to slow and temporarily store stormwater.
The neighborhoods suffered historically from flooding from hard rains that would overtake the streets, vehicles, and in some cases, homes.
“When I was reviewing plans for Pontilly and started hearing the stories, the purpose of it and why it came to be, I was like,'this is incredible,'” Williams said. “I remember thinking that if these things work in harmony the way they are supposed to, this is the blue print for what we need to do … this is the blueprint for how we move forward.”
The comprehensive project took about two years to complete and combines a network of bioswales, pervious surfacing, stormwater lots, street basins, green alleyways and stormwater parks. It can now store up to 8.1 million gallons of stormwater and reduce flooding as much as 14 inches during a 10-year rain event, according to the City.
“It’s just working with water it where it falls,” Williams said. “Instead of just a grassy lot, we excavated those and made them like miniature ponds where on a dry day you can drive through and see plants that have bloomed. When it rains, it’s going to be full of water and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. We want to see water where it falls. When you see all that water that’s in the pond, that’s water that’s not in the streets, it’s not in your car and it’s not in your home.”
The intricate design garnered national attention. Williams was named a CNN 2020 Champion for Change for her work with Pontilly and was honored by the alliance WaterNow as a 2021 Impact and Emerging Leader.
The accolades are appreciated, Williams said, but the best part of her job is interacting with residents and seeing projects that positively impact her community.
“Typically, we as engineers, sit at a desk, run numbers and calculations and put them on a computer,” Williams said. “My job is a bit more forward facing with the residents … It’s a unique position that I’m in. I do get to have some face-to-face and make sure I’m putting a project out there that really meets that specific need for any resident or community that we go into.”
Williams, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in civil engineering from UNO, said she is grateful for the engineering foundation—and connections—her undergraduate studies provided. She has worked alongside fellow UNO alumni and has kept in touch with former professors, Williams said.
“The degree I got from UNO was the foundation for everything; it sets the tone for everything else,” Williams said. “The connections that have come through UNO have been exceptional, the teachers have been incredible; there’s a lot of pride in saying that I went to UNO.”