It’s too soon here in south Louisiana to say we’ve dodged a bullet this hurricane season. We still have several weeks until we’re officially in the clear, and some of the worst storms in recent memory have been late- season doozies: hurricanes Rita and Wilma didn’t hit until late September and mid-October of 2005, respectively. Hurricane Opal, which decimated parts of the Florida Panhandle in 1995, also was an October storm.
Still, we’ve been very fortunate so far.
I kept thinking about that as I watched satellite images of Hurricane Dorian, a category 5, as it sat virtually motionless over the Bahamas for two days in late August, with rainfall totals that topped three feet (that’s not including storm surge flooding) and maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour.
Try to imagine what you’d be doing right now if that storm had decided to creep up the mouth of the Mississippi River and park itself over New Orleans or Baton Rouge or anywhere in southeast Louisiana. You’d still be in storm recovery mode and perhaps living somewhere else.
Of course, it’s not only massive hurricanes and wet, meandering tropical systems that pose a particular threat to us. As we’ve learned over the past few years, unprecedented “rain events” now happen with alarming regularity and cause considerable damage.
It was a typical summer morning in early June when a freak thunderstorm paralyzed the Capital Region, dumping more than seven inches of rain on some neighborhoods in just an hour or so.
No city can be expected to handle that much rainfall in an hour, one city officials said.
Of course, New Orleans officials said much the same thing a month or so later, when parts of the CBD and Garden District that had never before flooded took on inches of water after the outer bands of Tropical Storm Barry barely kissed the Crescent City.
Given our lack of preparedness and the utter deer-in-headlights, dumbfounded response we continue to hear from leaders in both cities every single time it floods, it’s just chilling to consider what would have happened if Dorian had decided to come our way.
Sooner or later, we’ll find out. In the meantime, we’re doing all sorts of reactive things to respond to these disasters. Louisiana has enjoyed a veritable windfall of federal largesse of late, thanks to a Congressional delegation that is really good at securing money for flood recovery and mitigation projects while simultaneously denying that climate change exists, much less that it might actually be caused or hastened by human activity.
But let’s give credit where credit is due. The money—some $14 billion for Louisiana alone—is a good thing, and more than $4 billion of it is coming to the Capital Region, where it will be spent, among other things, on long-term mitigation strategies, like the Watershed Initiative, which calls for dividing the state into eight regional watersheds and funding projects that will help geographically defined regions, not just a particular parish or municipality.
It’s better than nothing. But is it really the best way to spend our hard-earned tax dollars?
Many of the strategies that the state and city-parish plan to enact are projects that have been on the books for 30 years. They call for doing things like widening and deepening drainage canals, and in some cases, actually adding concrete to their banks, which might have been the best thinking on how to do things in the 1980s, but is now regarded by some as outdated and, potentially counterproductive.
Then, there’s the fact that we continue to allow development just about anywhere developers want to do it, regardless of what the flood maps or actuaries say. As long as a project technically meets the letter of the law—a retention pond, say, in exchange for dozens of acres of spongy wetland that once served as a natural drainage area—it gets the green light.
Later this fall, the Center for Planning Excellence will devote its annual Smart Growth Summit to discussing these kinds of issues. Experts from think tanks and universities around the country will be on hand to lead the panels.
Everybody who lives in south Louisiana should be there to hear the discussions. Those who spend their days regulating, planning, permitting, financing and doing development should be mandated to attend.
Among the highlights of the Nov. 12 summit will be a session on green infrastructure, which is routinely dismissed, often misunderstood and chronically undervalued. But data shows smart cities that are investing in green infrastructure—and doing more than just widening and deepening drainage canals—are experiencing a renaissance, as its multiple benefits are acknowledged and its cost-effectiveness is realized.
Another key panel will be on adapting to climate change. Experts will cover what is needed for cities to successfully adapt, the relative costs and long-term returns associated with different options, and how to finance resilient infrastructure using creative new tools.
There’s also a planned session on how such climate change impacts as sea level rise and increased flood risk are bringing about drastic changes in housing markets. In this session, experts will discuss the cost of acquiring versus elevating flood-prone properties, appropriately valuing real estate by including flood risk in the cost, and the legal implications of government relocation programs.
The one-day summit won’t be political. It will be pragmatic. Given the realities of where we live and the inevitable natural disasters we face, the discussions will be something we need to hear.