Riegel: Running out of places to hide from Mother Nature


As Hurricane Irma barreled toward the southeast U.S. earlier this month, we in south Louisiana breathed a collective sigh of relief.

This monster, the spaghetti models seemingly reassured, would spare us.

But it’s only a matter of time until our number is up again, and given the pummeling our neighbors to the west and east have taken this hurricane season, Louisiana isn’t out of the woods yet.

The days of watching and waiting for Irma were particularly nerve wracking. They came less than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey—described by the National Weather Center as “unprecedented and beyond anything ever experienced”—dumped more than 50 inches of rain on east Texas.

They came just a little over one year after the Capital Region experienced its own epochal event, a so-called 1,000-year flood that saturated the area with nearly 30 inches of rain over three days.

And they came just a few days after the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which tragically claimed the lives of more than 1,500 New Orleanians and obliterated beachfront communities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

We’re running out of superlatives to describe these storms.

How many times can you use words like “epic,” “catastrophic,” and “once-in-a-millennium” before they lose their meaning?

Unfortunately, as these storms become more frequent, fierce, erratic and unpredictable, we don’t seem to be learning any lessons from the past or heeding advice from the experts.

We’re also running out of places to hide. New Orleanians and others from the vulnerable coast used to evacuate to Baton Rouge when hurricanes threatened. But we all learned last summer that the Capital Region is as flood prone as anywhere when the conditions are right.

Many would also seek refuge in Houston when the storm threat was coming from the east. But no one will feel safe in Houston for a long time, not that it matters. The city is out of commission, as it copes with its own disaster recovery.

In the days leading up to Irma’s landfall, state officials in Louisiana held disaster drills to plan for the worst-case scenario. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said his citizens would be advised to head north, should conditions warrant.

But how do you evacuate a city of a million people without using Interstate 10?

It’s a chilling reminder of just how vulnerable we all are.

Unfortunately, as these storms become more frequent, fierce, erratic and unpredictable, we don’t seem to be learning any lessons from the past or heeding advice from the experts.

On the contrary, we continue to develop with abandon in coastal areas and in flood zones—not only in Louisiana but up and down the Gulf Coast. Development along Highway 30A on Florida’s Panhandle is booming, as opulent communities like Alys Beach and Rosemary Beach give new meaning to the term Redneck Riviera.

Closer to home, developers are already seeking to rebuild in areas that were inundated with floodwaters last August. Before the Planning Commission at the moment is a proposal for a subdivision of 425 single-family homes on a 178-acre tract off Jones Creek Road.

The area lacks sufficient drainage and infrastructure to begin with, and like much of southeast East Baton Rouge Parish, it has seen its natural canals filled in over the years to make way for more rooftops and concrete. A high density subdivision would seem counterintuitive.

But then, our National Flood Insurance Program continues to bail out property owners, enabling them to rebuild in vulnerable areas, and local governments fuel the dynamic. They’re reluctant to impose rules that stymie development and the tax revenues it generates.

An alarming segment of our population increasingly thumbs its nose at science, rejecting evidence of climate change and the role human activity is playing in it.

Troubling, too, is how we ignore the urgency of funding coastal restoration projects. Outside of policy circles and coastal communities, few seem to grasp the significance of the fact that Louisiana’s coast—the United States’ coast—is eroding into the Gulf of Mexico, taking with it the precious marshland and barrier islands that once protected communities from the worst ravages of storms like Harvey and Irma.

The state has a coastal master plan and $10.5 billion to fund it over the next 10 years. But federal red tape will keep the most important projects from getting started, much less being completed, for at least five years.

Worse still, the $10.5 billion will only pay for about 20% of the projects the state really needs to remain sustainable. It is almost a lost cause, and way past time to have hard conversations about where we should and can reasonably expect to live in the future.

Finally, an alarming segment of our population increasingly thumbs its nose at science, rejecting evidence of climate change and the role human activity is playing in it.

Perhaps it’s too soon to link the megastorms of recent years to the burning of fossil fuels. But it’s not too soon to stop the foolish disregard for empirical evidence that shows: A) the planet is getting warmer; B) warmer global temperatures increase the intensity of storms; and C) human activity likely plays some role in this cycle.

Why, in a nation that purports to promote STEM education at every turn, do we deride this concept and reject the findings of the scientists we all want our kids to become?

Given what our neighbors are living through in Texas and elsewhere, what we went through last year and will, undoubtedly, again, isn’t it worth opening our minds a little and changing some of our behaviors and priorities?

Or it is just easier to come up with new superlatives?  We will need them.

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