Question of the Day December 11, 2013
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Q:With all the recent rain, what effect has this had on the homeless population living in the tunnels under the Strip? Are copies of the book published many years ago about the tunnels still available anywhere?
A:To get the lowdown, we checked in with Beneath the Neon author Matt O'Brien, whose response we'll get to below. First, however, some background for anyone who may be unfamiliar with the subject of your inquiry.
Back in 2002, Matt was working as managing editor of the alt. weekly, Las Vegas CityLife, and became intrigued by the story of a psychotic killer who had evaded the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department by vanishing into the city's flood-control system. Anyone who lives in Las Vegas, or has visited during our rainy months (yes, we have them!) will be aware of the dangerous problem of flash flooding in the desert, when a heavy downpower hits unabsorbent dry ground. Casinos on the Strip have been known to flood and there are annual fatalities in the area, when people get swept away in their cars, for example.
Since the original "old" Las Vegas lies at the bottom of the valley, it came as a shock to us to discover that it was only in 1985 that the Clark County Regional Flood Control District (CCRFCD) was created by the Nevada Legislature, empowering the County to provide broad solutions to the problem of flooding. Work remains in progress on a 50-year program to eliminate most risk of flooding from what's known as a "100-year flood" (the technical term in flood-prone areas for a major event that has a 1% probability of occurring in any given year) in the populated areas for which the CCRFCD is responsible. As of the summer of 2013, a total of $1.7 billion has been spent on counter-measures, including the construction of 90 detention basins and approximately 581 miles of channels and underground storm drains.
It was these tunnels into which the wanted murderer had taken flight and, together with one of his colleagues, O'Brien decided to go down and investigate this hitherto unknown dimension of the city. What he discovered, with fellow CityLife contributor Josh Ellis, was that many of the storm tunnels are located directly under the Strip and its environs and that these dark, dank, and dangerous spaces had been adopted by some of the city's homeless population, forming a bizarre mirror universe to all the bright lights, glitz, and excess above the ground.
The more he discovered down there -- including relatively sophisticated dwelling areas and accomplished, provocative artwork, in addition to the more predictable ranks of addicts, mentally unwell, and generally destitute characters who were calling these catacombs home -- the more obsessed O'Brien became with this netherworld. He returned time after time, always with a tape recorder and flashlight, and sometimes with a photographer, to chronicle his experiences and encounters -- from learning how to cook crystal meth, to dancing with naked crackheads, and a lot more in between, whether heart-warming, heart-breaking, or downright scary -- in a series of features that eventually gave rise to an entire book.
From the outset, with its uncompromising full title, Beneath the Neon: Life and Death in the Tunnels of Las Vegas, Matt's work became a go-to darling of the media, whether it be concerned and shocked liberal news outlets like the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, or sources like Al Jazeera, which were perhaps gratified by the opportunity to promote such a graphic indictment of the "American Dream" gone bad. As the economy tanked and Sin City suffered increasingly publicly from the simultaneous blights of unemployment, foreclosure, and homelessness, the content of O'Brien's work was revisited over and over again as an encapsulation of just how bad things could get, and of just how shallow and fragile the delights of that "fake" reality in the above-ground Las Vegas truly were.
For his part, time and again O'Brien was happy to don boots and venture down into the tunnels' depths, whether it be with National Public Radio, or U.K. tabloid The Sun, the Los Angeles Times or France's Le Monde. His interest was as much in exposing the plight of those living down there as it was the promotion of his book, and he took practical steps to help his "subjects" with the formation of Shine a Light, a community-based initiative to raise money and provide practical help in the form of clothing, blankets, food, medication, and other necessities for the tunnel-dwellers of Las Vegas. As Publisher's Weekly put it, when reviewing Beneath the Neon: "Continually contrasting the sparkling casinos above with the dank, cobwebbed catacombs below, the observant O’Brien writes with a noirish flair, but his compassion is also evident as he illuminates the lives of these shadowy subterranean dwellers."
So, there's the background for anyone who didn't know. In the meantime, six years have elapsed since Beneath the Neon was first published, but while the Las Vegas economy is finally showing sustained signs of pulling out of its catastrophic nosedive, there's still an ongoing problem of unemployment, addiction, and homelessness that keeps the book, now in its eighth or ninth printing (we lost count!), continually relevant. Just this past summer, in fact, Matt was a guest on the "Dr Phil Show," which spent two days focusing on the lives of some of those currently living "beneath the neon" in a feature they titled, "Below Rock Bottom." We took the opportunity posed by this QoD submission to catch up with the author and ask him, not least in light of some of the harsh weather the city has experienced lately, what the latest news was from "down-under," so to speak. Here's his response:
"There's not much new to report down there that 'Question of the Day' hasn't reported on before. As usual, when it rains the people are pretty good about clearing out, returning when it dries. Yes, some newcomers are scared off, but the long-timers go back. There have been no deaths, nor even swift-water rescues, that I know of during the latest rains; that's more typical in the summer, when we have flash floods, as opposed to the prolonged drizzles more common at this time of the year."
[Ed: There have been more than 20 drowning deaths in the Las Vegas area since the early 1980s, including in January, 2005, when a man, believed to be a homeless person in a flood channel, drowned at Lake Mead Boulevard, west of Interstate 15. Another known instance was Randy John Northrup, a 47-year-old homeless man whose body was discovered, half-buried in the Las Vegas Wash, a few days after a November 2002 rainstorm.]
"Most people I’ve met in the drains have a flood-survival story. On a cold and rainy Christmas morning, Jim got washed under the Orleans Hotel-Casino on his mattress. Firefighters rescued Mike hundreds of feet into a four-tunnel drain … just before he was swept under New York-New York and the MGM Grand. During the July 1999 flood, Ernie was trapped in a lateral pipe under I-15 for three days without food or drinking water."
Still, those he describes as the "long-timers" have learned, for the most part, how to survive the harsh conditions in the tunnels.
"The cold weather, too, they have all handled before. In fact, if you're in the right tunnel, you are pretty well insulated from the cold."
"Shine a Light is still active and helping where we can, but Help of Southern Nevada, which was housing people from the tunnels for a while, seems less active down there now, I think as a result of budget cuts and caseloads being full; even, perhaps, some legal issues: There's a lot of red tape that can tie the hands of those wanting to assist."
If any reader would like to get more involved in any capacity, then please feel free to contact Matt O'Brien direct via his website, BeneaththeNeon.com, and thanks, on both his behalf and ours, for your continued interest in this (unfortunately) ongoing story.
You can read more of Matt O'Brien's observations and experiences of some of the darker, real-life nooks and crannies of Sin City in My Week at the Blue Angel and Other Stories from the Storm Drains, Strip Clubs and Trailer Parks of Las Vegas. The two companion titles are available as a bundled package for $15, exclusively at ShopLVA.com.