Don’t Let Louisiana Become a Climate Change Sacrifice Zone, Help Now

Flooding at the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, Louisiana. Simon Mahan 2016

About a third of the state has been impacted and the disaster is ongoing. I can’t list every single charity that folks should donate to, or assist. United Way (HERE), Catholic Charities (HERE), Baton Rouge Area Foundation (HERE), a list from Times-Picayune (HERE) and Weather Channel (HERE). If you know of additional resources, please feel free to post them in the comments section.

I live in Lafayette, Louisiana, the heart of Cajun Country. My family and neighborhood is safe from the floods, but much of the region has been horribly impacted.

What Happened? 

On August 11th, the local weather reports were showing that we were going to experience rain every day for what seemed to be the next month. But I certainly had no inkling of how bad the storms were going to get. Friday, August 12th, started like most other days getting the kids ready for school and daycare. By around 7-7:30AM Friday morning, I was notified that the Lafayette Parish Public School system was closing for the day. Childhood daycares usually follow the public schools’ lead, and I received notification our local daycare was also closing for the day due to the threat of floods. I also got a Wireless Emergency Alert on my smartphone with a loud beeping – flash flooding was expected nearby.

Flooding at the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, Louisiana. Simon Mahan 2016

In this part of Louisiana, rain and flash flood warnings aren’t always followed by closing the schools down. So folks still put their kids on buses to head to school for the day. Some buses were able to turn around and drop kids back off at home, some buses continued on to their school destinations. By mid-morning, local social media lit up from parents showing kids walking home in ankle-deep water, or stranded at a school.

All day Friday, the torrential downpours kept coming. Throughout the day, and well into the night, our cellphones kept getting updated with Wireless Emergency Alerts extending the local flash flood warning timelines. Governor John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency. Curfews for a variety of parishes were getting announced. Rivers flowed backwards as lower-level swamps began to fill up. The rain finally started to slow down Saturday, August 13th, in the afternoon. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Lafayette cancelled all Masses for all parishes for that evening, and churches across the region cancelled services. Roads were closed, as were interstates.

Schools were cancelled again on Monday, August 15th. A number of the schools experienced extreme flood damage, and some schools that were only marginally damaged ended up serving as staging locations for rescue and recovery. Our school board announced school would be cancelled for the rest of the week. On Monday and Tuesday, we had a respite from the rain and the sun was out and bearing down on rescue and recovery efforts that were already underway. A flotilla of volunteers launched flat-bottom boats, canoes and kayaks to collect stranded flood victims – a self-designated Cajun Navy.

Flooding at the Acadian Cultural Center and Vermilionville in Lafayette, Louisiana. Simon Mahan 2016

It was also about that time earlier in the week that Louisiana’s victims collectively began to feel ignored or forgotten. There was little national media attention, and a growing amount of media began to report on the lack of media. On Wednesday, August 16th, the New York Times published an article entitled, “On Gulf Coast Flooding, The Times is Late to the Scene.” Evidently the storm’s unexpectedness, its weekend arrival, other major news stories (a shooting in Milwaukee and the Olympics), and a variety of other factors caused a delay in reporting from the national media.

By then we already knew the storm was of historic proportions. Worse than Katrina. Worst storm since Hurricane Sandy. Some 40,000 homes have been damaged and several people have died. The national media began showing pictures on television, and the historic Louisiana Flood was set alongside with the massive Blue Cut Fire in San Bernardino, California.

Could this be climate change?

Dr. Jeffrey Halverson, a severe weather meteorologist, explains that the storm that caused the Louisiana floods resembled a in-land tropical depression. The storm travelled from east to west, the opposite direction of “normal” storms and fed on exceptionally humid air, created by “abnormally high ocean temperatures.”  He ended up calling the storm an “oddball,” a massive event without a scientific name, nor a hurricane-style name.

Initially, the storm was called a 500-year flood event, and then upgraded to a 1,000-year event. There’s been a lot of confusion, at least locally, as to what this means. Some misunderstand this to mean that there was a storm 1,000 years ago just as bad, thus this storm isn’t anything terribly out of the ordinary. But the 1,000-year designation is a statistical one, meaning there was just a 0.1 percent chance of this level of flooding occurring in a particular year. According to the USGS, these designations can change. If over several years, multiple “historic” flood events occur, that can increase the Annual Exceedance Probability (AEP), which is where we get the designation of a “1,000-year flood.”

As someone that works in the realm of energy issues and climate change, I’m always reminded it’s important to not equate each and every extreme weather event to climate change. It’ll take time for meteorologists and climatologists to crunch the numbers from Louisiana’s storm and try to make some sense of it all. But it’s hard to wait for the scientists to weigh in when the evidence is piling up all around us.

NASA recently said July 2016 was the hottest month on record, ever. That heat helped the air soak up more moisture, which was then dropped on Louisiana over a two day period. The same excessive heat has dried out much of the Western United States, and made the San Bernardino fires rage on. According to an article from Wired, ”This is the eighth time in about a year that 500-year rainfall has hammered the US, and climate change will make extreme weather events like this more common.”

 

I’ve known that extreme weather events could be a signal of climate change. But I hadn’t really thought about the specific, and ongoing impacts. Flood waters reach into nooks and crannies that normally wouldn’t hold water, creating new breeding ground for mosquitoes. Those mosquitoes can carry the threat of West Nile Virus and Zika virus. And more people are outside from dusk to dawn during the recovery efforts. Pets and farm animals need rescuing. People with medical needs can run out of medicine or oxygen bottles. Kids can’t go to school. Businesses are shut down, and the ones that are open have fewer customers. In this part of Louisiana, rice and sugar are mainstay crops, and many farmers have been affected. Highways and roads are closed, an inconvenience to some, but to those needing immediate medical attention, it’s a full-blown emergency. Cars and trucks are destroyed, making it hard to get to work (if work still exists). Electricity gets cut, and food rots in refrigerators. Scammers will try to bilk flood victims of their hard earned money. Caskets are coming out of their graves and floating through neighborhoods. Families will have difficulties with insurance companies. Those that are able to rebuild may continue to have mold problems. And then there’s the psychological effect. We had no warning this storm was going to be as bad as it was, maybe it’ll happen again. I know my eyebrows will be raised a bit higher anytime there’s a flood warning issued.

School of fish congregate on concrete. Simon Mahan 2016

If this storm is related to climate change…I really just don’t know what to say.

It’s not all negative. The level of community support is amazing. People are lending each other boats, couches, and anything in need. Businesses are bringing supplies and food to volunteers. Companies are opening their doors and providing free charging of electronics, a place to make phone calls or connect to the Internet. Some donation locations are stocked full of clothes for victims. Some are postulating that Louisiana’s resiliency is a primary reason for the lack of media attention – that the communities are so capable of self-help, that there’s no need for any news attention. I think that’s taking self pride it a bit too far, but the sentiment is a positive one.

Help. Now.

While folks bemoan the lack of national news attention to Louisiana’s flood disaster (which is still ongoing), I strongly encourage folks to check out Louisiana’s major newspapers, Times-Picayune (New Orleans, nola.com), The Advocate (Baton Rouge, theadvocate.com) and The Advertiser (Lafayette, theadvertiser.com). There are plenty of resources from the local newspapers on how to get updated and how to help the recovery.

Wireless Emergency Alert Flood Warning. Simon Mahan 2016

Let there be no doubt: if you’re reading this, I’m asking you to help. Louisiana is still in a state of emergency. From now through September 1st, the long-term weather forecast shows the southern region of Louisiana has a 20-80 percent chance of more rain and thunderstorms every, single, day. The skies are dark over Lafayette, and it’s raining as I write this. I just got another Wireless Emergency Alert. This thing isn’t over. We need to have a bigger discussion about climate change and energy policy in this country, we’re long past due. But for now, empathy and support for the victims is what’s needed the most. Don’t pass Louisiana off as a sacrifice zone to climate change. The good people here need your help, right now.

About a third of the state has been impacted. I can’t list every single charity that folks should donate to, or assist but here are a few to consider: United Way (HERE), Catholic Charities (HERE), Baton Rouge Area Foundation (HERE), a list from Times-Picayune (HERE) and Weather Channel (HERE). If you know of additional resources, please feel free to post them in the comments section.

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