Opinion: LA fails to learn from past flood mistakes

Opinion: LA fails to learn from past flood mistakes

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - It's a title we would rather not have, but it seems fair to call Louisiana the flood capital of the United States.

Just take a look at a list of the biggest payouts on record from the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Louisiana has received payments from 4 of the top 5 events and 7 of the top 10. And topping the list of course is Hurricane Katrina, a mega-flood that resulted in more than $16 billion in payouts with the lion's share of those coming to our state.

Given our vulnerability and depth of experience with rising water, you might think we would be world leaders in mitigating and responding to floods by now. But one year removed from the August flood, 5 years removed from Hurricane Isaac, and 12 years removed from Hurricane Katrina, it is clear we are not and that we are failing to learn from past mistakes.

Show me the money

Money is inevitably the biggest need in the wake of a flood. Yes, food, clean water, clothing and other day-to-day items are needed, but we've largely figured out how to collect and distribute the necessities of life. What we haven't figured out yet is how to get financial aid and relief to homeowners in a timely manner.

Remember the Road Home program? It was established by Louisiana in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 to distribute federal money to flooded homeowners to either help them rebuild or to buyout their properties. While the program distributed more than $9 billion in aid, Road Home was rife with stories of homeowners getting bogged down by red tape and notoriously slow disbursements.

Fast forward 12 years and the state now has the Restore Louisiana program in the wake of the August 2016 floods. Congress has appropriated $1.6 billion in flood aid to the state, but in a story we aired Monday evening, it was noted that only about 500 homeowners statewide have received money from Restore Louisiana and only 3 families in hard-hit Livingston Parish have benefited at this point. It's hard to say whether this is a state issue, federal, or both, but if you're a flooded homeowner, it doesn't matter. We've simply got to do better.

New Orleans, are you kidding me?

Where do we start with the recent debacle involving the city's drainage system? Top officials from the city's Sewerage & Water Board (S&WB) lying about the condition of pumps? Or the fact that the city's Mayor and other leaders were seemingly unaware that key elements of the drainage system had been crippled for months or years? Those are certainly good talking points, but there was another bit of news that emerged over the weekend that really caught my attention.

In case you missed it, Mayor Mitch Landrieu stated in a Sunday press conference that the flooding in Lakeview was not only exacerbated by broken and malfunctioning pumps, but also because a S&WB employee was not able get from one pumping station to another in Lakeview to "flip the switch" before the flooding began.

Are you kidding me? In 2017, we're still dependent upon someone flipping a switch to operate something so critical as New Orleans' drainage pumps? I borrowed the following quote from my uncle who has lived in and around New Orleans his entire life:

Anybody else think it's odd that the Sewerage and Water Board has to send out a guy to turn on a pumping station, yet I can turn the lights on in my living room from anywhere in the world just by asking Alexa?

It may be easy to play Monday morning quarterback but this is a key issue that should have been addressed after Hurricane Katrina revealed that it was an existing weakness. Thousands of homes in Jefferson Parish flooded during Katrina not from levee or floodwall failures, but because the parish's pumps were not operating during the storm and thus unable to remove the rainwater. Following an existing plan, Jefferson Parish had evacuated all of its pump operators the day before Katrina made landfall. My childhood home, where my father still lived at the time, was among those that flooded due to the unmanned pumping stations. It was the first time in the home's roughly 40-year existence that it had flooded. Twelve years should have been ample time for New Orleans area officials to come up with a better system for operating the pumps and avoiding a repeat of unmanned pump stations like we witnessed in adjacent Jefferson Parish in 2005.

Building interstates that act like dams

Before there was the "Great Flood of 2016", we had the "1983 Flood" here in Southeast Louisiana. It was a devastating event for many, but there were claims that the 1983 flood was exacerbated by parts of I-12 acting like a dam. You can read the full story from WAFB's Cheryl Mercedes here,
but the bottom line is that the court found that the state was indeed responsible for enhancing flooding in some areas due to an embankment on I-12.

Fast forward to 2016 and it didn't take long for some remarkable images to emerge apparently showing concrete barriers on I-12 in Livingston Parish acting like a dam. The mayors of Denham Springs & Walker subsequently filed suit claiming that those walls acted like barriers and only worsened the flooding in their communities.

I won't pretend to be a drainage expert, but the images seem to support the claims of those mayors. What's worse though is that it seems to be a similar issue to what happened in 1983. We need to learn from our past mistakes. And to my knowledge, in the year since this issue was brought to light, nothing has been done to address it.

Going forward…

The bad news is we will continue to see floods here in south Louisiana, some of historic proportions. That comes with the territory. And if you want to be even more pessimistic, subsiding land, rising sea levels and other factors are only increasing our risk with time.

The good news is that there is a real opportunity for us to learn from these frequent floods and work on some effective mitigation techniques. I've listed three examples of areas we have failed to successfully address, but there are many more, such as the Comite Diversion Project. Much of the blame lies with our local and state leaders, but ultimately doesn't that mean some of it falls on we the people, too? If we're not holding our elected officials accountable or electing qualified and skilled leaders, we are failing ourselves.

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