What We Can—and Can’t—Learn From the Floods in Baton Rouge

The last few weeks have been very difficult for me. I grew up in South Louisiana. Everyone member of my family in Livingston Parish had water in their homes. Moving forward, I sadly believe this will be more the norm that a fluke event.


Laura Bliss Aug 17, 2016


With an estimated 40,000 homes damaged, 30,000 people rescued, and 11 known dead, the Louisiana floods are a natural disaster of astonishing scale—the worst since Hurricane Sandy, according to the Red Cross. More than 25 inches of rain fell in some parts of the greater Baton Rouge area over three days this past weekend, delivered by an unusual slow-moving low-pressure storm system that “carried enough precipitation to rival a hurricane,” according to the New York Times. The National Weather Service officially declared it a “1,000-year rain”—meaning that the chance of such dramatic precipitation occurring in a given year was less than .1 percent. Yet as many scientists point out, freak storms like these are increasingly the norm as the atmosphere warms up.

Which raises the question: What could Louisiana’s hard-hit communities have done better to survive such an extraordinary event?

Provide better real-time information

As record-high crests along the Amite and Comite Rivers unfurled throughout the greater Baton Rouge area, many roads and highways quickly became impassable, cutting off access to several communities. For example, roads leading into the city of Central went completely underwater, leaving the area virtually isolated. To escape, residents had to scramble to synthesize closure information from local police departments’ social media accounts, the state department of transportation’s website, and parish-by-parish flood zone maps.

More accessible real-time information that gathers and maps road closures and water levels would help people evacuate faster, safer, and more confidently, says Craig Colten, a geography scholar at Louisiana State University focused on coastal resilience and the history of flood planning.

“There needs to be one authoritative regional source”—perhaps the website of the state’s emergency management agency—“that people can rely on,” he says.

Stop building in flood zones

A lot of the places that suffered the worst flooding this week were, perhaps not surprisingly, in Special Flood Hazard Areas, which is how FEMA designates communities that have a one-percent annual chance of flooding. One of them was Centurion Estates, a subdivision east of O’Neal Lane and south of Florida Boulevard, which saw rainfall up to the rooftops. Many of the homes in Centurion were built before 1978, the year FEMA created its first Flood Insurance Rate Maps, giving citizens and planners a much fuller picture of their flood risk (and insurance requirements) than before. But plenty more homes were built within the last 15 to 20 years, an indication that community planning has not emphasized flood safety.

An even more striking example can be found in Magnolia Farms, a brand-new subdivision where “sale pending” signs are still dangling in front yards. Flood waters rose to the windows of many of its new homes. Magnolia Farms is located in Denham Springs, another SFHA. “There’s a lot of emphasis on development at the local level, because there’s interest in increasing the tax base,” says Colten. “Development spawns more development, and safety gets pushed to the background.”

Better land-use planning that points construction to less flood-prone areas would likely save Louisiana money and lives in the long run. Why isn’t this obvious in a low-lying state that receives an average 62 inches of precipitation every year? Many Louisiana communities lack the resources to undertake and enforce serious flood planning. And even those that don’t may suffer from a psychological gap, says Colten. “We’re not able to sustain a sense of urgency between these tragic events,” he says. “I don’t know that these floods will help us overcome this.” …….




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