Conquering Water


Randy Newman’s song, “Louisiana 1927” pretty much sums up New Orleans’ interminable challenge with having just way too much water. “Louisiana, Louisiana. They’re tryin’ to wash us away.” And as the sea levels continue to rise, we continue to ask, “How exactly do we keep from being washed away?”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell is moving to implement recommendations in the 2013 Urban Water Plan, designed to deal with stormwater in a way that shifts the emphasis from pumping water out of the city to holding it in place with retention and detention systems, rain gardens and permeable paving. There have also been a few new businesses created to address all this water.

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On March 21, Luisa Abballe and Arien Hall of Mastodonte took home the first place prize of $10,000 at The Water Challenge, presented by Greater New Orleans Foundation, the first of three annual pitch competitions known collectively as PitchNOLA. The series is organized by Propeller, a nonprofit that helps local entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses with a particular focus on addressing inequalities.

“We were nervous before we started our pitch, but once we got going it was easy,” said Abballe. “I guess it’s because we’re so passionate about what we do.”

They must have done something right because they also took home the Audience Favorite Award of $500.

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Mastodonte is a New Orleans-based construction company that provides a full range of construction services including stormwater management, construction design consultation, operating a build team and green infrastructure landscaping. The company also does ponds, rain gardens, water features and installs rain barrels.

“We try and put in water retention systems that store water as close to where it falls as possible and allows it to slowly permeate back into the earth’s surface, instead of being pumped into the grey infrastructure system,” says Abballe.

Hall says the company will use the prize money to finish building a greenhouse to grow plants for landscaping projects and to expand the business.

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“We’re going to hire two more staff, ” says Hall. “Right now it’s just me and Luisa. And we’re going to set up general liability and worker’s compensation insurance. Right now we have a steady flow of clients. I think we are at the end of our start-up days and moving into our growth phase. I’m hoping in five years we’ll both be making six figures.”

Mastodonte is also doing a great deal of work on the Community Adaptation Program in Gentilly. The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) was a sub-recipient of a $141 National Disaster Resilience Competition grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It provides $5 million for residential stormwater management improvements to owner-occupied single-family homes with household incomes at or below 80 percent of the area median income in the Gentilly area.

NORA expects the program to divert and detain stormwater runoff on more than 200 properties with an average grant award between $10,000 and $25,000. The improvements are designed and installed at no cost to the homeowner.

“We are excited to be able to do this work,” says Hall.

The company, in an effort to call attention to environmental and socio-economic justice issues, also offers apprenticeships to minority youth and hosts educational workshops and programming for the community.

“The best thing you can do for your home is to get rid of the concrete,” advises Abballe.

And if you’re wondering about the origin of the name, here’s the story according to Abballe.

“Juggernaut was our original name but we thought it sounded too clunky so we looked the word up in French because New Orleans is a French city and the translation that came up was Mastodonte, a prehistoric elephant that roamed all of North America.”



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