Louisiana Ignored Dire Forecasts And Flash Flood Warnings

Aug 22, 2016

Tens of thousands in Louisiana were surprised by floods last week. In a changing climate, what more can be done to warn communities that the weather can do things they aren't used to?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The devastating floods in Louisiana stretch over 20 parishes. And the Red Cross has said it's the biggest natural disaster in the U.S. since Superstorm Sandy. At least 13 people have died. Tens of thousands of residents of south Louisiana were caught off guard by the water, in spite of dire forecasts and flash flood warnings. Reporter Ryan Kailath of member station WWNO tried to figure out if anything more could have been done to get people to safety.

RYAN KAILATH, BYLINE: The night before heavy floods inundated Baton Rouge, Linda Smith saw forecasts calling for up to 15 inches of rain, and she got a flash flood warning. But Smith's neighbors had told her that in 40 years here, their homes had never flooded. So the next day, Smith sat on her porch to watch the rain come down.

LINDA SMITH: And within a hour, the water was up to the sidewalk. Within another 40 minutes, we were walking in knee-deep water. It was horrible. If we had waited another 30 minutes, the water would have been up to our necks.

KAILATH: She got out just in time. Family after family told a similar story. They heard the warnings and thought, it won't happen to us. Smith says she would have heeded more urgent notifications.

SMITH: We got no calls, no texts, no nothing. So that's why I didn't panic because I didn't hear a siren. I didn't hear anything.

KAILATH: So whose job is it to issue those warnings? Weather and emergency services here all passed the buck, which seemed to stop with local parish governments. Kelly McGaha is an emergency manager for Linda Smith's parish, East Baton Rouge.

KELLY MCGAHA: This was record flooding. And we got a lot of historic flooding in areas within East Baton Rouge Parish that has never occurred before.

KAILATH: McGaha says her office would never tell people to leave except in a life-threatening situation and that the forecasts they received didn't warrant that. Marshall Shepherd was, until recently, president of the American Meteorological Society. He says one reason people may not have registered the danger is that this storm didn't have a name like Tropical Storm Bonnie or Hurricane Katrina.

MARSHALL SHEPHERD: A name might have garnered more attention locally and nationally.

KAILATH: But storms don't get names, which are issued by the National Weather Service, without meeting certain criteria like high wind speeds. Shepherd says naming this monster rain storm may not have changed behavior anyway.

SHEPHERD: People have a hard time grasping things that they haven't experienced.

KAILATH: According to the research Shepherd cites, people around the world are going to see more and more weather for which they have no reference point.

SHEPHERD: People just assume a heavy rainstorm is a heavy rainstorm, just like the storms they experienced growing up as a child or perhaps 10 years ago.

KAILATH: But in fact, Shepherd says, today's storms are different - more destructive and only getting stronger. Inland communities like Baton Rouge haven't experienced floods like this before, but increasingly, they'll have to learn to prepare for them anyway. Ultimately, Shepherd says, the responsibility for getting ahead of a disaster is personal. It's a lesson Linda Smith of Baton Rouge won't forget. Next time there's a flash flood warning...

SMITH: Oh, I'm gone. I'm gone.

KAILATH: For NPR News, I'm Ryan Kailath in south Louisiana.

Support for WWNO’s Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.