8.24.18 How Louisiana became resilient against storms

LSU Carol O. Sauer professor of geography Craig E. Colton works in his office in the Howe-Russell Geoscience Complex on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018.

Heavy rainfall and flooding devastated Louisiana in August 2016, causing 13 deaths and an estimated $8.7 billion in property damage. LSU geography professor Craig Colten believes the state is still not prepared should a similar event happen again.

Louisiana is assumed to be over-prepared for another flood with the vast amount of money the state spends on emergency preparedness and the abundance of volunteers after disasters such as the Cajun Navy. But Colten said Louisiana needs to invest more in mitigations, which are the ways states lessen damage of storms through good drainage, land use and levees.

"We tend to invest more in emergency preparedness than in mitigation," Colten said. "There’s huge investment [in hurricane levees]... but for these smaller floods like the 2016 flood we’re woefully unprepared."

After the 2016 floods, there was a spike in public concern and demand for storm mitigation. In April, Louisiana received the $343 million necessary to complete a long-awaited project, the Comite River Diversion Canal. Bureaucratic red tape has delayed funding for the project since 1984. The project would divert flood waters from populated areas, but Colten said there is still much more to be done.

"I’d like [the government] to emphasize safety in terms of zoning and land-use planning and not just economic development," Colten said.

State officials, city officials and parish leaders have allowed suburbs to be built in areas with histories of flooding. For example, over 80 percent of the homes in central Louisiana were in the 100-year floodplain flooded in 2016. Many homes that flooded in 2016 were rebuilt in the same place as before.

"[Parish leaders in East Baton Rouge, Ascension and Livingston] wanted people to rebuild their houses the same way in an area that had just flooded, because they didn’t want to lose tax base," Colten said.

Colten’s research also looks into the history of Louisiana and how early settlers responded to floods. He found that whenever early settlers’ homes flooded, they learned from their mistakes and moved to high ground.

Spanishtown, for example, is the oldest neighborhood in Baton Rouge with one building dating back to 1823. It is also located on some of Baton Rouge’s highest ground.

"The basic gist of the story is that people avoided the floodplain until the ‘60s and ‘70s," Colten said. "There were no major historic sites severely damaged by the 2016 flood because people avoided those areas historically.

Colten emphasized that there was so much damage in 2016 because Baton Rouge allowed people to move east into flood-prone areas in recent decades.

"Most of the areas that flooded in 2016 had been built since 1980," Colten said. "The city really didn’t put any restrictions on development."

With rising sea levels and changing climate, Colten expects even worse floods in the future. Hurricane Harvey was only one year after the 2016 flood and brought 60 inches of rain to Houston. Baton Rouge only experienced 25 inches of rain in the 2016 storm. Colten said it was also possible for areas along the Gulf, including Baton Rouge, to experience 40 inches of rain.

"We could easily have a Harvey," Colten said. "If Harvey had been here, we would’ve seen far worse flooding than we did [in 2016]."

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