Elderly couple, family unsure who to turn to about roadside drainage ditch maintenance

Bill McNeill went to survey the water that had made its way into their home. While doing so he slipped and fell and is now in the hospital.
Published: Sep. 23, 2021 at 11:20 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Floodwater seeped into an elderly couple’s home along South College Road early Wednesday following days of heavy rain, highlighting, the family said, just how poorly maintained the drainage ditch in the front yard is.

“That drainage is sorry,” said Valentina McNeill, who lives off South College Road. “They don’t do anything.”

But it’s not exactly clear who ‘they’ is, according to McNeill and her family. For years they have tried calling the City of Wilmington, the North Carolina Department of Transportation and New Hanover County.

“We had called — several occasions — and we get put to voicemail. We get sent to ‘oh we don’t do that, somebody else does that,’” said Cindy Grimsley, Valentina’s daughter. “So we get to another guy, ‘well I’m not an engineer but I can talk to so and so.’ And we never actually get to talk to the person who’s supposed to be the one that does it.”

Grimsley said it’s especially difficult for elderly couples like the McNeill’s and their neighbors.

“Most people don’t know who to call, especially elderly people who have never worked in that industry — who do you call?” she said. “So who’s the one doing all the calculations on how much water can this take?”

This week marked the third time their home of 22 years took on water. McNeill said it has gotten worse through they years, and believes it’s because water is not draining properly out of the ditch that separates her front yard and South College Road.

Bill McNeill, Valentina’s husband and a retired Master Sergeant in the Green Berets, used to try and maintain the drainage ditch himself, but eventually became too old to do so.

“He would go out there and mow the edge and then he would get inside the ditch with a weed eater,” Grimsley said. “He was doing that in his 80s and he shouldn’t have to do that.”

On Wednesday, Bill McNeill went to survey the water that had made its way into their home. While doing so he slipped and fell and is now in the hospital.

“He fell in the hallway and broke his neck and his shoulder,” Valentina McNeill said. “He’s 94 years old. I’m 91, so I’m not too far behind him. But that’s heartbreaking.”

This was the last straw for the family. The couple’s family did what they could to clean up the house and the drainage ditch out front, even unclogging pipes.

“The water is not flowing out of it — it’s stopped up,” Grimsley said. “My sister-in-law and my sister came in yesterday and tried to pull as much out as they could, but you can only go so far with your arm.”

Now the family is asking for answers, but are not entirely sure who to turn to.

“I want them to come out here and survey it — see what the grade is and see what they need to do to get it at a level where it will actually flow out,” Grimsley said. “It’s not flowing out, it’s overflowing.”

WECT reached out to the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County to get more clarity about which entity is in charge of maintaining the drainage ditch.

On Friday, a NCDOT representative returned our request for comment.

The department looked back at their records through 2018 and said it has been contacted three times from residents of 3511 South College Road.

The first call, in July 2018, NCDOT crews cleaned out the drainage ditch located near the property, the spokesperson said.

“In 2019, a family member contacted the department and staff met with the homeowner on site. At that time, NCDOT inspected the ditch closest to 3511 and it was clear. NCDOT did identify several drainage structures across the street that contained debris, and those were cleaned out,” the spokesperson said.

The third call came this week and the department visited the site on Friday to make an initial assessment.

NCDOT maintenance crews plan to revisit the site next week to conduct a hydraulic study and determine what steps can be taken to improve drainage in the ditch.

A city spokesperson said they are also looking into it.

This story will be updated as we hear back from each entity.

This portion of South College Road is within city limits, but is a NCDOT state maintained road, according to its website.

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