By Alison M. Jones
No Water No Life’s thoughts are with all who’ve lost so much in Louisiana, particularly in eastern Baton Rouge. In our 5 watershed expeditions in the Lower Mississippi River Basin, we have learned much about flooding. This essay analyzes the history, causes and devastating effects of high-water events in Louisiana, and all floodplain areas. We believe the solutions involve us all.
FLOODPLAINS Approximately 1/6th of Louisiana’s acreage is bayous, lakes, swamps and rivers. Southern Louisiana is a floodplain. As one sign says, “It’s called a floodplain because it’s plain that it floods.” It is perfect habitat for turtles, waterfowl and bald cypress trees.
Periodically, a rain-swollen Mississippi River or hurricanes bring floods. This month’s catastrophe was due to an “inland, sheared tropical depression.” Those most impacted are not turtles, waterfowl or swamp cypress. They are humans.
A RIVER TOWN Baton Rouge, the first bluff north of the Mississippi River Delta, was settled circa 1,200-6,000 BC. The Native American Mississippian hunter-gatherers used the river and this flood-safe bluff to trade throughout the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys. Europeans followed and established Baton Rouge in 1699. Since then, families, communities and industries on and around the bluff have both thrived and suffered because of water.
The Mississippi River has driven Baton Rouge’s economy since its busy steamboat days. River transport made Baton Rouge a major U.S. industrial and petro-chemical center. The Port of Greater Baton Rouge is the 10th largest port in shipped tonnage. Now this port is handling the new Panamax ships to carry even greater amounts of grain, crude oil, cars and containers.
But with these benefits of the river – and the rains that feed it – come floods. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 affected 630,000 people. Herbert Hoover called it the “greatest peacetime calamity” in U.S. history. More devastating floods occurred in 1973, 1983 and 2011. The May 1995 Louisiana Flood dumped up to 20” of rain, causing over $3.1 million in damages. Each time, personal and economic damage has affected Louisiana and the U.S.
SOGGY FOUNDATIONS and POOR PLANNING For centuries, floods have swept away buildings, businesses, crops, and human lives. Whether a columned plantation or colorful trailer, the loss of a home entails the loss of investments, lifestyles and irreplaceable intangibles from family photos and holiday décor to BBQ patio moments.
Some say that everyone lives in a flood zone. Perhaps. But certainly flooding impacts are spreading wider. TV commentators of this 2016 Louisiana flood simply say the water has nowhere to go. Why? New land development has created greater floods since construction has diverted natural runoff paths. As economies and populations grew, housing booms focused more on needs than risks. Developers covered wetlands and built on flood plains. Thus, urban and suburban development extended flooding beyond designated zones on FEMA maps.
Could that have been stopped? In the 1990’s and 2000’s Baton Rouge became one of the fastest-growing cities in the South. From 2000 to 2010 Baton Rouge’s population grew by about 33%. Ironically, in 2005 Hurricane Katrina flood refugees from New Orleans fled north, further causing Baton Rouge’s population to surge.
In hindsight, zoning regulations should have been stricter forty or fifty years ago. Wetlands should have been protected. Sprawl should have been addressed and discouraged. These measures can still be instituted; and rebuilding on soggy ground can still be regulated.
FACING THE WEATHER How can southern Louisiana and other low-lying regions mitigate, if not protect, impacts of future floods? Engineers, government, low-lying communities and all of us must face predictions of continued record-breaking rainfalls and increasingly high moisture levels in our atmosphere. Such extreme weather events used to be rare, often over 500 years apart. But since last May, eight similar, flood-producing heavy rainstorms have occurred in the U.S., according to meteorologist Eric Holthaus. If indeed this is a “classic signal of climate change, as claimed by Climate Nexus, we must implement immediate remedies.
PREVENTION Possible solutions are big and small in scope. They can come from top-down and bottom-up efforts. We hear on TV that homes should be rebuilt on higher foundations. The reality is they should be rebuilt elsewhere. That’s the big solution: a complex and expensive remedy needing brave leadership and community commitment. It has been done. After severe floods in 2007 and 2008, Gays Mills, Wisconsin, is now moving its residences and commerce uphill from the Kickapoo River Floodplain. But Gays Mills is a much smaller community than eastern Baton Rouge, and it has taken almost a decade to accomplish and fund.
MITIGATION Louisiana and other floodplains can take steps smaller than relocation that will at least mitigate flooding effects. Small acts of sustainability really can lessen the impacts of flooding.
–Roads and parking areas can have porous surfaces, allowing water to seep through.
–Zoning can limit impermeable surfaces for renovated and new development.
–More trees can be planted so their deep roots can absorb excess waters.
–Rain gardens, bio-swales and other green elements can be implemented in residential, commercial, industrial and institutional settings to help absorb and divert run-off.
–Artificial wetlands can be built and existing wetlands saved so nature can again fulfill its role of storing floodwaters.
–Flood maps can be updated for today’s extreme weather.
These mitigations apply all across the country beyond already known flood regions! While global warming may seem like a slow climb up an endless ladder, its effects periodically pull that ladder right out from under us. Some of those moments have names like Katrina, Sandy and Irene. Some events are nameless but just as devastating, as Louisiana now knows.
FOSSIL FUELS AND FLOODS Beyond community-based mitigation, there is one major remedy that involves us all. Industrial emissions from across the globe – and even from Baton Rouge plants on the Mississippi River – contribute to climate disruption and the intensification of storms such as Louisiana’s 32-inch downpour this month. Ironically, Louisiana is a state known for its oil and gas industries – and for its floods. Fossil fuels and floods are co-joined in Louisiana, creating a cause-and-effect cycle.
Beyond Louisiana though, our national dependence on fossil fuels makes all of us partly responsible for the losses in Baton Rouge’s flood this summer. Our heavy use of cars and often-excessive consumption contribute to carbon emissions that indiscriminately hurt us all. We can cut back to essentials! Also you can join NWNL in following and sharing news of clean-energy technologies, including “Bladeless Wind Turbines” and solar highways producing crystal-powered energy.
OUR FUTURE Today, we can all help Louisiana residents with gifts to Red Cross or LEAN – Louisiana Environmental Action Network, a local Baton Rouge organization NWNL has worked with.
Just as importantly, both today and tomorrow, we can all proactively support new, sustainable energy resources. This will improve the future of existing flood-prone communities from Baton Rouge to Houston; from St Louis to Miami; West Virginia to South Carolina and worldwide.
By supporting measures to stop building in floodplains and efforts to lessen weather-related disasters, we say to Baton Rouge residents that we are one with them – and their children.