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Grate Tragedy: Storm Drainage Pipes Are Deadly Threat to Kids

Large, uncovered pipes like the one an Iowa teen fell into last week and drowned exist all over the country, and no rules mandate they be covered.

The open storm sewer pipe into which an Iowa teen was swept to his death last week should have had a safety grate that could have prevented the tragedy — and there are hundreds or thousands more just like it across the country, according to experts.

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Logan Blake, 17, was sucked into a four-and-a-half-foot open storm sewer pipe in Cedar Rapids Tuesday, after he fell into rain-swollen waters while trying to retrieve a Frisbee. His body was found in a lake the next day.

"I just saw a picture of that opening, and there absolutely should have been a safety grate,” Ken MacKenzie, who co-chairs the stormwater management committee for the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies, told NBC News.

New safety guidelines drafted by MacKenzie’s group and other public works industry associations recommend a grate or “trash rack” be placed over certain long storm drain pipes that are capable of sucking a person inside.

Children are naturally curious about what’s in that pipe. Unfortunately, we will see this happen again.

But there are no federal guidelines mandating that potentially dangerous pipe openings be covered or fenced off, MacKenzie said, leaving the decision up to local governments.

Craig Hanson, director of the Cedar Rapids public works department, told the Associated Press that the drain into which Logan was swept had been there for decades without a problem, it had never had a safety grate, and officials didn’t consider installing one over fears that it would get clogged and cause flooding.

Image: Cedar Rapids Firefighters open a manhole cover as they try to locate a child reportedly swept into a sewer by storm water near the intersection of E Avenue and Oakland Road NE in Cedar Rapids
Cedar Rapids Firefighters open a manhole cover as they try to locate Logan Blake, who was swept into a storm sewer pipe Tuesday.Liz Martin / The Gazette-KCRG TV9

Some other local governments have placed grates over dangerous stormwater pipes — but only after tragedy.

The Village of Bolingbrook near Chicago put a safety grate over a pipe after a 6-year-old child fell into fast-moving water and was drowned in 1998, according to reports.

And Delaware’s Department of Transportation ordered that long inlet pipes with a diameter larger than 12 inches be covered by a grate after two children drowned in a stormwater pipe during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and after another 7-year-old was sucked into a 12-inch pipe in 2004 and was rescued safely, according to DelDOT documents.

It’s not a one size fits all approach ... Are you causing a bigger problem by putting the rack in than if you don’t?

Mark Blake, the father of the teen who drowned in Iowa, declined this week to say whether a grate should have been placed on that pipe, saying he was focusing on his son’s funeral, which was held on Saturday.

Moving water can be deceptively deadly — water less than a foot deep flowing at two miles per hour can sweep an adult off their feet, experts say. But the decision to install safety grates at inlet pipes is not always a clear-cut one: The grates can accumulate trash, tree limbs and other debris and get clogged, which can cause backups on other parts of the line.

"It’s not a one size fits all approach," said Ron Czerski, deputy director of operation and maintenance for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in the Cleveland area. "If you start to build racks where you don’t really need them, it can cause flooding issues and create a bigger issue. Are you causing a bigger problem by putting the rack in than if you don’t?"

Image: A rescue team searches Cedar Lake for Logan Blake in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
A rescue team searches Cedar Lake for Logan Blake, 17, Tuesday.Ryan J. Foley / AP

Flood waters that spill over onto roads can also be deadly. The National Weather Service Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services warns drivers to "turn around, don’t drown," and said that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics show over half of flood-related drownings occur after people drive cars into too-deep water.

The American Society of Civil Engineers last year gave the state of the nation’s wastewater infrastructure a "D" in its annual report, and said it needs $298 billion in repairs over the next two decades — although that includes the entire system, not just stormwater and drainage systems.

MacKenzie, of the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies said there are "thousands, if not more" open and potentially unsafe drainage pipes across the country, and that the danger of people being sucked into pipes is well-known throughout the industry.

Installing safety grates over open culverts and intake pipes can range from a few thousand dollars to the more than $10,000 that Denver installed over a five foot tall, 12 foot wide culvert running through downtown, he said.

"They naturally attract children. Children are naturally curious about what’s in that pipe," MacKenzie said. "Unfortunately, we will see this happen again."