To live in a flood zone, come to Louisiana. Of the top flood prone counties or parishes we are the top four, have seven of the top ten and eight of the top twenty. A dubious record.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been caught in a sudden downpour in New Orleans, Lake Charles or many points between. A new analysis laying out flood risks nationwide puts a brace of Louisiana parishes at the top of the list, highlighting a problem only expected to worsen as climate change accelerates. State officials say the study is further evidence of the need for flood mitigation and coastal protection projects, but, as always, financing them will continue to be a struggle. It takes nothing even close to a hurricane to cause devastating flooding in the former swamp that makes up southern Louisiana, and the new study by the New York-based First Street Foundation makes clear what residents of the state and local government officials have long known through experience. Louisiana parishes fill out the top four spots of most at-risk counties nationwide, and eight are in the top 20. Cameron Parish is at No. 1, followed by Orleans. The others are Jefferson, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Terrebonne, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist.theadvocate.com
|1. Cameron Parish, LA||11. Sutter County, CA|
|2. Orleans Parish, LA||12. Galveston County, TX|
|3. Parish, LA||13. Franklin County, FL|
|4. St. Bernard Parish, LA||14. Tyrrell County, NC|
|5. Hyde County, NC||15. St John the Baptist Parish, LA|
|6. Plaquemines Parish, LA||16. Poquoson County, VA|
|7. Terrebonne Parish, LA||17. Glynn County, GA|
|8. Monroe County, FL||18. Logan County, WV|
|9. St Charles Parish, LA||19. McDowell County WV|
|10. Charlotte County, FL||20. Johnson County, KY|
This was a major study taken nation wide and you can see some come from river flooding but most are coastal flooding which sea water rise will exasperate.
The study seeks to provide a comprehensive view of flood risks from all types of events, ranging from storm surge to heavy rains. Its calculations include the possibility of what is known as a 500-year flood, which has a 1-in-500 chance of occurring – or 0.2% — in any given year. Much public infrastructure, including the levee system that protects New Orleans, is built to the 100-year flood standard, and some experts say that’s insufficient given the increasing intensity of storms as a result of climate change. Risks are broken down under five categories: residential, roads, commercial, infrastructure and social. The breakdown by city puts Metairie at No. 1 and New Orleans at No. 2. As an example, it says 100% of residential properties in both have some level of risk, though the severity of that risk varies greatly and elevations of homes themselves — which are often built on piers several feet off the ground — are not taken into account. When it comes to infrastructure, the study says 100% is at some level of risk in Metairie and 94.5% in New Orleans. Lake Charles is the only other Louisiana city in the top 20, at No. 17. The study says 39.6% of its residential structures are at risk and 52.8% of its infrastructure.
The study also projected into the future and more parishes were moved into the top twenty,
Projecting ahead 30 years, the study also evaluates the greatest increases in risk nationwide. Three Louisiana coastal parishes – St. Mary, Vermilion and Iberia – are included in the top 20, due mainly to projected sea level rises. Parishes like Orleans and Cameron do not show a large increase in risk over the coming decades because their risk level is already so high. “Our primary goal was just to raise awareness around the infrastructure at risk in these communities so people knew,” said Jeremy Porter, First Street’s head of research and development. “If their home, for instance, was raised 20 feet — they’ve adapted their home for the area they live in – their power plants or their police stations or their fire stations may still be at risk.” “What we are advocating for is the use of proper flood and risk tools for understanding that risk.”
Ida was a contributing factor in the rankings but more for the lower ranked Parishes not those of us at the top.
Hurricane Ida provided a stark view of the difficulties in protecting coastal Louisiana from flooding. While the post-Katrina levee system surrounding New Orleans held, communities outside of it flooded badly in certain cases. In LaPlace and Jean Lafitte, homes were swamped and residents had to be rescued by boat. Plans have long been in place to build a levee system to shield LaPlace from storm surge from Lake Pontchartrain, but delays in obtaining federal money mean it remains years away from completion. But while hurricanes pose obvious risks, heavy rainfall can also expose the region’s vulnerabilities. Lake Charles has been recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricanes Laura and Delta last year, but in May severe rains fell so fast over the course of several hours that drainage systems were overwhelmed, stranding residents and damaging hundreds of homes and businesses – some of which had been recently repaired. Another example was catastrophic flooding across the capital region in 2016.
Some locales are using the same methodology as First Street to prioritize high flooding areas.
State officials say they are already using similar models to the one employed by First Street in planning and prioritizing flood-mitigation projects, though with more detail and focus on Louisiana, particularly through the Louisiana Watershed Initiative and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The CPRA’s coastal master plan, updated every six years, outlines how the state would spend $50 billion over 50 years on levees and flood control structures, shoreline protection and coastal restoration. Such planning has positioned the state as a leader in seeking to address land loss and flood protection as vast portions of Louisiana erode away or are inundated by the Gulf at shocking rates. However, whether it will be enough as storms intensify and sea levels rise – and if it can all be financed – is another matter. “Having that single vision for our coast has been very, very beneficial if you think back to the BP oil spill, past storms that we’ve had to deal with and now looking ahead at recovery from Hurricane Ida,” said CPRA executive director Bren Haase. “As the federal government is looking to invest in infrastructure and recovery across the nation, not just here in south Louisiana, I think we’re well-positioned to make a very, very good case that ‘hey, we know what we want to do, it’s the right thing to do and it’s worth funding.’”
Louisiana ans a Watershed Initiative to guide us in handling floods. It looks at the whole watershed not a specific city. The Pontchartrain Watershed extends below New Orleans and encompasses our whole geographic area.
The state’s Watershed Initiative has been looking to improve the way Louisiana deals with flood risks by approaching the issue from the standpoint of an entire watershed rather than by city or parish. It has divided the state into eight watershed regions and has prioritized projects under a scoring system. It has already selected more than $400 million in projects, said Pat Forbes, who as head of the state’s Office of Community Development plays a major role in overseeing the initiative. They’ve ranged from an east Slidell ring levee to drainage improvements in Ascension Parish. “The watershed initiative is not just about spending the $1.2 billion that (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) sent us for mitigation activities,” said Forbes. “It’s about changing the way that we manage flood risk.” A key aspect of that is addressing flooding “in a watershed instead of within a jurisdictional boundary. Cameron Parish, Calcasieu Parish, Sabine Parish all share a common watershed, and so they all share a common flood risk,” he said.
The state is also considering buyouts to move people from affected areas. That is something that helps but some say no.
Another issue the state faces and which is likely to grow in importance as sea levels rise is when to move residents out of harm’s way with voluntary buyouts rather than continue to spend the money needed to protect especially vulnerable communities. Low-lying Cameron Parish, for example, has seen its population plummet to around 5,600 as hurricanes and storm surge have walloped it in recent years. Some have predicted that the parish could largely disappear by the end of the century if sea levels rise as dramatically as projected. The Watershed Initiative is already offering voluntary buyouts in seven locations, including one in a Lake Charles neighborhood that has flooded three times in four years. Homes bought there must remain open space in perpetuity, with the idea that it will improve drainage for those who remain. As for the First Street study, Forbes and Haase said it can provide a useful tool for residents. The organization’s Flood Factor website allows searches by address, providing the risk of flooding for a specific property. If you plug in the address for City Hall in New Orleans, it tells you that “within the next 15 years, this property has a 12% chance of 1 inch of flood water reaching the building at least once.” It gives it a 4/10 moderate “flood factor.”
The Coastal Master Plan is also one more document to use in making decisions. The infrastructure bill is another option but most of the states delegations say they will not vote for it despite its benefits to the state.
Jordan Fischbach, director of planning and policy research for The Water Institute of the Gulf nonprofit who has also participated in developing the state’s coastal master plan, said there have been efforts to move away from primarily addressing flood risks only after a disaster occurs. The bipartisan infrastructure bill currently being debated in Congress includes money meant to be spent on increasing resilience to avoid repeat disasters. “It continues to be true that the vast majority of funding that flows towards infrastructure investments and also towards communities at risk from flooding and other hazards — most of that happens in that recovery phase after the storm,” he said. “There’s been a lot of focus on that, and basically the fact that that process is both inefficient, and oftentimes what you’re doing is just sort of rebuilding what was there or not necessarily using that opportunity to lower that risk or to make an area more resilient to future events.”
There are tough decisions to be made and for every exit from below us the water will get closer to us. We could say we are on borrowed time and that might not be wrong.